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On Christmas Night (The Sussex Carol)

[ Roud 597 ; Bodleian Roud 597 ; trad.]

On Christmas Night All Christians Sing, also knows as The Sussex Carol was collected in the early years of the 20th century by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Shirley Collins with the Etchingham Steam Band sang The Sussex Carol on 16 December 1974 at Cecil Sharp House in London. This recording was included in 1995 on their eponymous CD The Etchingham Steam Band.

The Albion Dance Band recorded On Christmas Night All Christians Sing during the The Prospect Before Us recording sessions but the track was shelved and had to wait until 1983 to be included on the album's CD reissue. They re-recorded this song several times for their album A Christmas Present from The Albion Band (1985), and as the Albion Christmas Band for their CDs An Albion Christmas (2003) and Traditional (2009).

Martyn Wyndham-Read, Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick and Maggie Goodall sang On Christmas Night on the 1986 anthology Yuletracks.

Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band sang On Christmas Night (The Sussex Carol) on their 1987 CD A Tapestry of Carols and 2005 CD and DVD An Evening of Carols and Capers.

The New Scorpion Band sang The Sussex Carol in 2001 on their CD The Carnal and the Crane. They noted:

A mainstay of the modem Christmas choral repertoire, this carol would not be known to us if Ralph Vaughan Williams had not succeeded in meeting Mrs Harriet Verrall in the small Sussex village of Monk’s Gate, near Horsham, in 1904. A splendid singer of traditional songs and ballads, Mrs Verrall was also the source for Our Captain Cried All Hands, which Vaughan Williams subsequently set as He Who Would Valiant Be. His choral arrangement of On Christmas Night all Christians Sing was published in Eight Traditional English Carols in 1919. The text is of late 17th century origin, the first version of it having been published in 1684, and it subsequently appears in the chapbook A Good Christmas Box in 1847.

Our arrangement is intended to evoke the village band, with brass instruments to the fore—concertina, cornet, euphonium, tuba, violin, percussion and vocals.

Kerfuffle sang the Sussex Carol in 2009 on their Midwinter album Lighten the Dark.

Magpie Lane sang The Sussex Carol in 1995 on their Beautiful Jo CD Wassail! A Country Christmas and Carol and Andy Turner sang it as the 24 December 2011 entry of Andy's project A Folk Song a Week. He commented in his blog:

Not, of course, specifically a Sussex carol: the Roud Index lists versions collected from oral tradition in counties including Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Surrey, Herefordshire and Hampshire; while the Bodleian has copies of early nineteenth century ballad sheets printed in London and Birmingham. Indeed, according to Wikipedia the words were first published by Luke Wadding, a 17th-century Irish bishop, in a work called Small Garland of Pious and Godly Songs (1684).

But Vaughan Williams collected this version from Mrs Verrall, of Monk’s Gate, Horsham in Sussex, in 1904, and his arrangement of the carol was included in the Oxford Book of Carols, first published in 1928 (he had also incorporated it into his Fantasia on Christmas Carols, first performed in 1912).

I’ve always enjoyed singing this carol, but these days it has a particular significance for me as it’s almost invariably the song which closes our Magpie Lane Christmas concerts in Oxford. As such it brings a mixture of emotion: exhilaration at the completion of a successful concert in front of a supportive home crowd, and a general feeling of goodwill-to-all-men-it’s-almost-Christmas; mixed with a tinge of sadness because this year’s concerts are over, and we won’t be dusting off this repertoire again for another twelve months.

Here the lead vocals are taken by my wife Carol, with my eldest son Joe on fiddle. A very happy Christmas from all of us.


Maddy Prior sings On Christmas Night (The Sussex Carol)

On Christmas night all Christians sing,
To hear the news the angels bring:
News of great joy, news of great mirth,
News of our merciful King's birth.

Then why should men on earth be sad,
Since our Redeemer made us glad
When from our sin he set us free
All for to gain our liberty?

When sin departs before his grace,
Then life and health come in its place;
Angels and men with joy may sing,
All for to see the new-born King.

All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night:
“Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen.”