A Colonial Christmas was nothing like the holiday we celebrate now, and only a bit similar to the common British Christmas of the 19th century. It was definitely a religious holiday focusing on the Advent of Christ's birth and in some churches, continued through January to the Day of Epiphany.
Sometimes it included decorating with branches and dried herbs, some special meals and singing.
Joy to the World was published in 1719 as a poem by Isaac Watts. For those who used it as a hymn during the Christmas season (or any other time of year) it was a matter of choosing your own tune. The one we know now was not written until 1820. Did the colonials sing this song on Christmas day? It's possible. Via the Colonial Williamsburg website, I found this: A tutor named Philip Fithian recorded in his journal: 'an enjoyment of Mr. Watt's hymns in good company' on Christmas Eve. But this was 1775 in the home of a wealthy plantation owner.
It's odd to think that the British Parliament actually banned Christmas celebrations in 1647, and the Puritans denounced the celebration because they forbid communal singing and definitely dancing.
No wonder the British settlers in that and the next generation had qualms about openly celebrating Christ's birth as a holiday.
One particular carol could have been part of winter gatherings: Boar's Head Carol, and old-country favorite from the 1600s, but it doesn't strike me as very Christmassy!
The other great hymn writer, Wesley, published Hark the Herald Angels Sing early enough for our colonial forefathers to enjoy. And they might have, but not with the tune we know which became popular in the 1860s. The original poem, Hark how all the Welkin Rings was edited a time or two. (Welkin is an obsolete word for The Heavens). The many publications and collections of Wesley hymns often underwent such changes.
Greensleeves is one of the few old tunes that has been a recognizable tune for many centuries. However, even What Child is This (verses) was not written until the 1800s.
So what did the colonials sing to celebrate Christ's birth? No one really knows, according to John Turner, an expert at Colonial Williamsburg. But here is another song to consider:
The Old Year Now Has Fled Away - another song set to "Greensleeves"
Music, poetry, singing and dancing (where allowed) was entertainment and a very large part of social interaction. Times have changed but I think there's nothing more charming than the idea of a gathered group of friends singing together in the home. I hope you all can enjoy some caroling or hymns with friends this special holiday season!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Be blessed!