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Origins: Christmas is Coming [revised, updated 11-12-14]

Honk

Honk

Christmas is coming,
The goose is getting fat;
Please put a penny
In the old man’s hat.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do;
If you haven’t got a ha’penny
God bless you.

This rhyme, often sung as a round, and has been accepted into the canon of Christmas carols in North America, doesn’t appear in the nursery rhyme addict’s bible which makes dating it difficult.

To begin with a bit of frivolity, we we can say with certainty the rhyme appeared after the Great Vowel Shift that created our modern tongue, which means it’s extremely unlikely to have appeared before 1550, and is probably significantly later than that.

The first publication of ‘Christmas is Coming’ (that I can find) is in 1882. The rhyme appears in an issue of the periodical Bye-Gones, a publication ‘relating to Wales and the Border Counties’. The following year a book by CS Burne and GF Jackson entitled Shropshire Folklore appeared thtat also included the rhyme. It appears under the heading of Nursery Rhymes and Children’s Jingles and is noted as having been collected in Oswestry.

Given the title of the journal in which it appears, it’s seems fair to assume the rhyme is well establised, in Oswestry if nowhere else, before the time it is printed, but the rhymes lack of inclusion in anthologies like Gammer Gurton’s Garland  or Nursery Rhymes of England, published in 1866 and 1849 respectively confuses matters.

Gammer Gurton’s Garland and other, similar, tomes, should not be considered exhaustive lists of nursery rhymes, but it is distinctly unusual that it is not there. All we know is that the rhyme appeared at some point after 1550 but was not considered significant enough to be be printed until 1882 and wasn’t anthologised until even later than that. It’s probably Georgian or early Victorian, but it’s worth investigating other clues the text provides. Since charitable giving has been a part of Christmas since forever (it’s where we get Boxing Day from and is celebrated in the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas‘) and the penny was introduced as a form of currency in seven-hundred-and-something, the history of the Christmas feast itself might offer the best clues.

Goose for dinner

Goose has graced the table at ritual feasts since time immemorial, though it has gone in and out of fashion. The Celts served goose at Samhain and medieval Christians served it at Michealmas (29th September); the tradition of eating the fowl at Christmas probably comes from the Germanic festival of  Yule.

WHO SHOULD COME IN BUT THE FAT COOK, WITH A GREAT GOOSE. From The Little Nightcap Lettes, FE Barrow, 1869

WHO SHOULD COME IN BUT THE FAT COOK, WITH A GREAT GOOSE. From The Little Nightcap Lettes, FE Barrow, 1869

Thankfully we don’t need to look further back than the reign of Elizabeth I, other we’d be here all day. In the Elizabethan era, goose was expensive, and though it remained popular among those who could afford it, it wasn’t the Christmas feast for most.

In 1588, Elizabeth I ordered her subjects to eat goose for their Christmas dinner in a celebration of England’s victory over the Armada, which suggests that it wasn’t the most common meat served – if it was, the people wouldn’t have to be ordered to eat it.

Cromwellian and Restoration Christmases were a subdued affair – under Cromwell you could have your prized bird confiscated –  but by the Regency period goose was back on the menu and by Victoria’s age it had established itself as a tradition. Prince Albert may have made turkey the fashionable choice, but for the poor, only one bird would do:

… you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course – and in truth it was something very like it in that house.

[…]

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t think there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family indeed; as Mrs Cratchit great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’ t ate it all at last! Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!

Dickens’ A Christmas Carolpp. 55-56

So it seems ‘Christmas is Coming’ most likely appeared in the Georgean or early Victorian period, in Shropshire. The first souces that contain the lyric do not also provide a melody, but ‘Christmas is Coming’ did eventually attract more than one. Edith Nesbit Bland (1858 -1924), better known for her novel The Railway Children, composed one tune and Henry Walford Davis (1869 – 1941) another but the rhyme really took off as a song  when it was included by the Kingston Trio on their 1960 album The Last Month of the Year under then title  ‘A Round about Christmas’. The liner notes of the album claim that the rhyme is often sung while a hat is passed around to collect donations.

Nineteen years later, an even more unlikely artist released a version of the song on the album A Christmas Together. Here’s John Denver and the Muppets:

Whenever the rhyme was written, ‘Christmas is Coming’ remains a seasonal favourite. The words remind us that, as we prepare to spend the holiday season in celebration, we should spare a thought (and a coin if we can) for those who are less fortunate than us. That’s the sort of sentiment most of us can get behind.

————————————————————————————————-

**A North American book from 1945, Sing and Dance: Folk Songs and Dances including Play-party Games, names Nesbit of the author of the lyric too, but that’s fairly unlikey.

7 responses »

  1. Pingback: Which Goose Is Getting Fat? | sappy as a tree: celebrating beauty in creation

  2. I was glad to find that someone had tried to find out more about the origins of this song. I used the four lines of “Christmas Is Coming,” which I learned in elementary school, to open a recent post on my blog. I felt uneasy about wikipedia’s identification of this song as American and finally (after already having written and posted my article) started trying to find out more. There is not a lot of information available — or not on the internet, at any rate.

    Reply
    • Thanks Sandi. There’s so little information out there so I’m only sorry I couldn’t be more accurate. There’s still a very slight chance it’s American, but it’s extremely unlikey.

      Reply
      • I should probably rewrite my opening paragraph (but have just appended a note at the end, for the moment): it does seem to have been more popular as a modern carol in the U.S., but your research makes it clear that the nursery rhyme originated in the U.K.

        Reply
        • Yes, I think you’re right that it’s more popular/well known in the US. I’d love to know why, but my research is limited, at the moment, to books that have been uploaded to Google Books. I miss my access to academic libraries!

          Reply
          • I should add that my research shouldn’t be taken as gospel. I’m as thorough as I can be, but I work alone so there’s every chance I’ve missed something.

            Reply
          • I was intrigued to hear that Edith Nesbit had written a melody for the lyric. The Railway Children and Five Children and It are both favorite children’s classics.

            Reply

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