Christmas Carols

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for singing and playing compiled by Hermann Rieth with illustrations by Georg Bildstein

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“Christmas Carols” – carefully compiled by Hermann Rieth and illustrated by Georg Bildstein, opens up a world of Christmas music from England. This collection is aimed at all enthusiasts of traditional instruments such as Hümmelchen, Dudeys, but also recorders and many others. Born out of an enthusiasm for Advent Carol Singing, this work offers a selection of melodies specially adapted for the range of traditional instruments.

The meaning of the Christmas Carols

Christmas carols are an integral part of British folklore and embody a tradition that has its roots partly in pre-Christian times. They symbolize the living connection between historical customs and today’s Christmas season. This collection takes you on a musical journey through the Christmas story, complemented by some of the continental traditions that are still alive in Europe today.

Inspiring encounters with music

Hermann Rieth, himself a passionate bagpipe and gemshorn player, was inspired by the Advent atmosphere of carol singing. The melodies, which play within a simple range, were artfully arranged by him for singing and making music together in “Christmas Carols”. This adaptation makes the pieces ideal for schools and educational institutions to promote the joy of making music.

Variety of instruments

The collection “Christmas Carols” includes a wide range of instruments. Whether for Hümmelchen, Gemshorns, recorders, Cornamuses or Krummhorns – each notation begins with an indication of the optimum pitch. This ensures flexible adaptation to different instrument types and tunings, from soprano in C to alto in F and tenor in C, and enables broad musical participation.

Insights into the Christmas story

Most of the songs tell the well-known Christmas story as told in the Gospels. These songs bring history closer in a way that has been appreciated in many parts of Europe for generations. From “Child in the Manger” and “Holy Christmas on the Living” to traditional customs such as “Wassailing” and “Morris Dancing”, this collection invites you to explore the variety and depth of the Christmas season.

Tradition and renewal

In addition to the songs, the book provides insights into various customs of the British Isles, from “Wassailing” to “Mummers Plays”. These descriptions not only provide cultural context, but also suggestions on how old traditions can be integrated and celebrated today. The challenge of tracing historical paths leads to an exciting examination of the origins and development of Christmas customs.

Songs that connect

With titles such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Christ Was Born” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, “Christmas Carols” offers a wide selection of songs that invite you to celebrate together. Each carol is an opportunity to share the joy and fellowship of the Christmas season.

The sounds of Christmas: experiencing traditions and instruments together

This collection of Christmas Carols allows traditional instruments to take center stage and explore the festive music of the Christmas season together. It creates a special opportunity to experience the joy of making music with Hümmelchen, bagpipes, recorders and others. Let’s take the opportunity to create the Christmas atmosphere together through the variety of instruments.

Additional information

Weight 0,250 kg
ISBN-13 978-3-927240-95-7
GTIN 9783927240957
Pages 36
Format A4
Produktsprache German


This collection was inspired by Advent carol singing among colleagues. For a bagpipe and gemshorn player, it was tempting to transpose the beautiful melodies, which manage with the range of a ninth, and bring them into a two-part form for singing and playing. At the same time, the songs are easy to play with recorders or other instruments and thus form a fund for making music at school. For Hümmelchen, Gemshorns, recorders, Cornamuses and Krummhorns, the pitch of the instruments is noted at the top left of each song: S for soprano in C, A for alto in F or T for tenor in C.

Most of the songs are about the Christmas story as we know it from the Gospels and as it is also alive in the continental tradition.

‘Child in the Manger’: This chorale melody is named after the town of Bunessan in Scotland. The text was originally in Gaelic and known as “Leanabh An Aigh”. It was translated into English by Lachlan Macbean (who gave the tune its name ‘Bunessan’). In 1931, Eleanor Farjeon wrote the lyrics ‘Morning has Broken’ to the melody, which was popularized by the singer Cat Stevens.

Holy Christmas on the Living’ stems from an early Christian culture in the north-west of Scotland, traces of which have survived to the present day. The origin of this song is unclear. But in Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, there is a reference to a similar song: “These carols were sung by a band of men who went about from house to house in the townland. The band selected a leader for their singing and for their actions throughout the night. This leader was called fear-duan (song man), and the others were called fir-fuinn (chorusmen). When they had sung their carols at a house, two or three bannocks were handed out to them through a window. The song-man got half of every bannock so received, and the other half went to the chorus-men.”

A rich tradition in the folklore of the British Isles is still alive today at Christmas time. Origins from pre-Christian times continue to be cultivated and in some cases combined with Christian customs. ‘Wassailing’, ‘Mummers Plays’ and ‘Morris Dance’, ‘Hunting the Wren’ and ‘The Boar’s Head’ should be mentioned here. One difficulty with British customs is that people expect to be shown a clear path from our modern to prehistoric times, and in almost all cases there is no such path. So people invent various theories about origins and meanings – most of which are meaningless! Against this background, it becomes understandable that individual practices are lost and, at the same time, others emerge or traditions that were initially unconnected enter into a new liaison. Some of the customs are described in more detail below.

Wassailing is one of the oldest English traditions and has various forms.

One is the ‘House-to-House Christmas Wassail’. Young people went around knocking on doors and singing songs wishing good luck and blessings to everyone they met. In return, they expected a small gift or hospitality. Today, the tradition has become a popular festival in some places and is no longer reserved for the young (e.g. ‘Stroud Wassail’). Another variety is the ‘Orchard Wassail’, which is still cultivated today in apple-growing areas (e.g. Somerset). However, this ceremony does not belong to Christmas, but to the rest of January.

Mari Lwyd’ is the Welsh version of Wassail. The Wassail group visits houses in the neighborhood with a ‘horse’ (consisting of one or two people in a horse costume). People sing outside the front door and sing poems (including a traditional poem from tausch
with the homeowner) asked to enter the house. The house is then blessed for the coming year. As a thank you, visitors receive drinks and

Morris dancing is a tradition that has survived in a few Gloucestershire villages and was discovered there by the English folklorist Cecil Sharp in 1899. He then collected and notated the dances with the accompanying music – and ensured their wider distribution. In Gloucestershire, the main time for Morris Dancing is at Whitsun. But in the border region of Wales and England, it’s the time for Morris Dancing at Christmas (‘Border Morris’).

Mummers Plays’ have been handed down for centuries. Texts have been preserved, and there are groups of players, some of whom work very traditionally, but also those who play new pieces or incorporate current themes into old pieces.

The presentation of the ‘Boar’s Head’ is an academic ceremony, especially in English colleges. Queen’s College in Oxford is particularly well known for this. The festival around the boar’s head probably goes back to Anglo-Saxon influences, which brought a connection between Freya cults and St. Stephen’s to the British Isles.

‘Hunting the Wren’ is a custom that is particularly popular in Ireland and Wales. It is about the wren, the king of birds, who is hunted and passed around as a lucky charm. The ‘Wren Boys’ are often dressed up in straw, and there are parties in the streets and pubs.

Cutty Wren’: Recorded by the group Steeleye Span on the album ‘Time’. On the cover it says: “The wren is known as the King of the Birds, because there is a fable in which a competition takes place to decide which bird is supreme. It is decided that he that flies highest is the monarch. The wren craftily hitches a ride on the back of the eagle and wins. Also the wren was sacred to the Druids and the custom of catching and killing wrens at Christmas time would not be incompatible with this history of reverence. It would be protected all year and then ritually slain as a sacrifice at the appropriate time. As with all possible remnants of ancient religions, their meaning becomes obscured and their enactment trivialized, and so this song until recently was attached to the Christmas tradition of wassailing and the demanding of monies.”

Holly and Ivy’ are the plants that take center stage in England for Christmas decorations. There is also (according to Bord) the “ubiquitous Christmas tree”, decorated and lit by candles, without which no British child’s Christmas would be complete – a custom that dates back to the late 19th century. was imported from Germany.

My special thanks go to Elke and Achim for patiently trying out the songs, Georg Bildstein for the lovingly painted illustrations and Vincent Eising-Boyny for correcting the sentences. I received valuable tips from Fiona Morrison from Scotland, Gwilym Davis from England and Terry Osborn from Wales – and the logo for ‘Stroud Wassail’ from Steve Rowley, thank you very much. I wish you happy music-making and enjoyment of the old traditions of the British Isles.

Hermann Rieth in summer 2015


  1. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
  2. Christ Was Born
  3. I Saw a Maiden
  4. I Saw Three Ships
  5. On Christmas Night
  6. Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day
  7. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
  8. God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen
  9. O Little Town of Bethlehem
  10. Child in the Manger
  11. Past Three o’clock
  12. While Shepherds Watched
  13. Winds through the Olive Trees
  14. The Twelve Days of Christmas
  15. Holy Christmas on the Living
  16. Little Jack Horner
  17. Please to See the King
  18. Cutty Wren
  19. Stroud Wassail
  20. Here We Come A-wassailing
  21. The Gower Wassail
  22. Gloucestershire Wassailer’s Song
  23. The Boar’s Head
  24. Board Morries


Hermann Rieth

Hermann Rieth had recorder lessons with his mother as a child. Later, recorder lessons and playing became an essential balance during his studies (mathematics and physics for the higher teaching profession) and during his training as a hand weaver. As a crafts teacher, he continued this passion for making music with his pupils.

After getting to know the Hümmelchen and Dudeys, a new intensification began: learning the Dudel sackspiel, attending courses and making lots of music. He soon began organizing the Schwäbisch Hall Sackpfeifertage with a friend. This led to an interest in early music, a preoccupation with old prints and manuscripts, and an extensive collection of pieces for Hümmelchen and Dudey.

My involvement with the repertoire of this magazine began in my school days with the program “Hello Folk”, which Walli Whyton presented for the English soldier radio station. There, the sounds of folk rock and Anglo-Saxon customs could be heard alongside the familiar. Some examples are included here at the end.