This remains one of the most popular of today’s carols and one that has been mercilessly parodied by generations of schoolchildren. The words are attributed to the Irish-born Nahum Tate (1652-1715). Tate was a poet, hymnist and lyricist who became England’s poet laureate in 1692. It is not known when Tate wrote the composition but the words appeared in Tate and Nicholas Brady’s 1700 supplement to their New Version of the Psalms of David of 1696. It was the only Christmas hymn authorized to be sung by the Anglican Church. The usual tune to which it is set is Winchester Old, a tune dating to the 16th Century.
Despite the popularity today of the Winchester Old tune, the carol has been set to many different tunes, notably by local village music masters for their village choirs. A good many of these tunes turn up in West Gallery music collections or in oral tradition, but usually derived from the West Gallery tradition. Mrs Phelps learnt the song from her uncles in the Salvation Army.
Notes by Gwilym Davies