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On Christmas Day It Happened So

[ Roud 1078 ; Ballad Index PBB006 ; VWML RVW2/12/3/230 ; trad.]

The Valley Folk (Jean and Elaine Carruthers, John Dickinson, Stephen Heap) sang On Christmas Day It Happened So in 1968 on their Topic LP All Bells in Paradise: Carols for All Seasons. A.L. Lloyd commented in the sleeve notes [with my additions in brackets]:

Contrary to official doctrine, the notion of the vengeful Jesus is not uncommon in folklore, as we see from this forbidding carol. Though, in some versions, the ploughman at work on Christmas Day explains that he's only doing so because he has great need, being anxious to avoid hunger and want in the coming year, Christ remains implacable, and blasts the ploughman, his oxen, and his wife and children too. The carol has been best preserved by gypsies in the New Forest, Herefordshire and Shropshire. This version comes from one of the finest of living English traditional singers, the Shropshire gypsy, May Bradley. It was collected by Fred Hamer [in 1959], who published it in his Garners Gay (E.F.D.S. Publications, 1967). Other sets are in Leather & Vaughan Williams' Twelve Traditional Carols (a version from May's mother, Ester Smith [collected in 1912]), and in Gillington's Old Christmas Carols of the Southern Counties (a New Forest version [called In Dessexshire As It Befell]). Jean and Elaine Carruthers sing this as a duet.

May Bradley's version of On Christmas Day was originally published in 1971 on the EFDSS LP Garners Gay that accompanied Fred Hamer's book, and is now available on the EFDSS CD A Century of Song (1998), on the Free Reed 4 CD anthology Midwinter (2006), and on her Musical Traditions anthology Sweet Swansea (2010).

Carl Hogsden sang On Christmas Day in 1995 on John Kirkpatrick et al's Folkworks “Wassail!” tour, and they recorded it for the same-named Fellside CD Wassail!.

James Yorkston sang In Dessexshire As It Befell in 2003 on his promotional EP Someplace Simple.

John Spiers and Jon Boden sang On Christmas Day in 2005 on their CD Songs and Jon Boden sang it as the 2010 Christmas Day entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. The CD liner notes commented:

Collected by Vaughan Williams in Hertfordshire. In common with other traditional songs such as The Bitter Withy, this depiction of Jesus clings on to the more Germanic, vengeful deity favoured by the earliest Anglo-Saxon converts to Christianity.

Tim van Eyken sang On Christmas Day It Happened So on Waterson:Carthy's 2006 album Holy Heathens and the Old Green Man. Martin Carthy commented in the album's sleeve notes, similar to Lloyd above:

Songs don't come much darker or more forbidding than On Christmas Day It Happened So which Tim learned from Fred Hamer's book Garners Gay . Fred Hamer recorded it from the Gipsy singer May Bradley whose mother, Ester Smith, had sung for Ella Mary Leather and Vaughan Williams fifty years before and whose version of the song Mrs Bradley had remembered almost exactly. Its steely, utterly opaque and unforgiving vision of Christianity will leave many bewildered but it's one which still obtains in surprising places.

Andy Turner sang On Christmas Day as the December 13, 2014 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Lyrics

Waterson:Carthy sing On Christmas Day It Happened So James Yorkston sings In Dessexshire As It Befell

On Christmas Day it happened so
Down in the meadow for to plough,
As he was ploughing all on so fast
Up stepped sweet Jesus himself at last.

On Christmas Day it happened so
Down in those meadows for to plough,
As he was ploughing all on so fast
Up came sweet Jesus himself at last.

“Oh man, oh man, why do you plough
So hard upon Our Lord's birthday?”
The farmer answered him with great speed,
“For to plough this day I have got need.”

“Oh man, oh man, what makes thou plough
So hard upon Our Lord's birthday?”
The farmer answered him with great speed,
“For to plough this day I have got need.”

His arms did quaver through and through,
His arms did quaver, he could not plough.
The ground did open and lose him in
Before he could repent of sin.

His arms did quiver to and fro,
His arms did quiver, he could not plough.
The ground did open and loose him in
Before that he could repent of sin.

His wife and children's out of place,
His beasts and cattle almost lost.
His beasts and cattle they die away
For ploughing on Old Christmas day.
His beasts and cattle they die away
For ploughing on Our Lord's birthday.

His wife and children's out of place,
His beasts and cattle almost lost.
His beasts and cattle they die away
For the ploughing on the Lord's birthdday.
His beasts and cattle they die away
For the breaking of Our Lord's birthday.

 
Spiers & Boden sing On Christmas Day

On Christmas Day it happened so
Down in the meadows for to plough,
As we were a-ploughing on so fast
Up comes sweet Jesus himself at last.

“Oh man, oh man, what makes you plough
So hard upon the Lord's birthday?”
The farmer he answered him with great speed,
“For to plough this day we have great need.”

His arms did quaver to and fro,
His arms did quaver, he could not plough.
The ground did open and let him in
Before that he could repent of sin.

His wife and children are out of place,
His beasts and cattle they die away.
His beasts and cattle they die away
For the breaking of Our Lord's birthday.

Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Origins: On Christmas Day - miserable message?