“Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” hearkens back to an era when theological ideas were part of everyone’s mental awareness, ripe for poetry and song. Though the idea of Christ and humanity being united as bridegroom and bride is a classic Christian motif, we are surprised to find it in a popular Christmas carol, and even more to find the image extended to depict Christ as our dancing partner.

William Sandys (1792-1874) was an antiquarian by hobby—a “person who collects or studies old things” or “a student of the past,” according to Webster’s. The things Sandys happened to collect were Christmas songs. His 1833 publication Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern helped to launch the Victorian revival of the holiday, a revival that followed centuries of puritan neglect.[*] Sandys claimed in his book to have unearthed English yuletide songs dating back four centuries. Making their first appearance in print were many carols we now take for granted, such as “The First Noel,” “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

Although it hasn’t soared to those heights of popularity, “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” is richly fascinating nonetheless. The text has turns of phrase redolent of the Middle Ages or Renaissance, yet no source for the song prior to Sandys has been found. What is most remarkable about “Dancing Day” is that it narrates the entire story of Christ’s life in Christ’s own voice, and that it describes the story of salvation with the image of a dance:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to the dance.


Sing, oh! My love, oh! My love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

Most scholars agree that the text goes back far earlier than 1833, with the phrase “legend of my play” a possible clue that the carol was connected to the medieval mystery plays. Musicologists Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott write:

It seems possible that ‘Tomorrow shall be’ was devised to be sung and danced at the conclusion of the first day of a three-day drama . . . The actor portraying Christ would have sung the verses and the whole company and audience the repeats of the refrains.

Hymn texts in which Christ himself speaks—a device one commentator refers to as vox Christi—are rare, making a theatrical origin for “Dancing Day” even more likely.

Mystery plays were one of the three distinctive medieval forms of theater, the other two being miracle plays and morality plays. All three types evolved out of short scenes performed in church by the clergy as an adjunct to the liturgy and depicting biblical subjects such as the Creation, Adam, and Eve, or the Last Judgment. Mystery plays eventually moved out of church premises into the village square, often traveled from town to town on wagons, and became increasingly elaborate.

As the plays traveled to various locales, they were often advertised by the players in a song called a “banns.” If our carol originally formed part of a mystery play about the life of Christ, the “dancing day” on the “morrow” might refer to the subsequent part of the play, treating the Redemption.

Most striking is the relationship between Christ and humanity being likened to that of a lover and his “true love,” with the refrain’s expressive repetitions of “my love.” This motif hearkens back to the love poetry of the Song of Songs, in which the lover and beloved are traditionally interpreted as representing Christ and the church or Christ and the soul. The idea of Christ and humanity being united as bridegroom and bride is a classic Christian motif, but we are surprised to find it in a popular Christmas carol, and even more to find the image extended to depict Christ as our dancing partner. There is a good amount of theology and scripture in “Dancing Day,” such as the treatment of the Incarnation:

Then was I born of a virgin pure;
Of her I took fleshly substance.
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to the dance.

In a manger laid and wrapped I was,
So very poor; this was my chance,
Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass,
To call my true love to my dance.

At this point in the carol we have reached the season of Epiphany:

Then afterwards baptized I was;
The Holy Ghost on me did glance,
My Father’s voice heard from above
To call my true love to my dance.

Into the desert I was led,
Where I fasted without substance;
The devil bade me make stones my bread,
To have me break my true love’s dance.

Note the three occurrences of the word “substance” in the song, to refer to food and to Christ’s earthly and glorified body.

The sixth stanza has proved troublesome with its harsh reference to “the Jews,” meaning of course the Jewish authorities and their role in consort with the Romans in condemning Christ. “My foes” has effectively substituted for “the Jews” in many performances.

The Jews [my foes] on me they made great suit,
And with me made great variance,
Because they loved darkness rather than light,
To call my true love to my dance.

This and the next three stanzas cover the Passion:

For thirty pence Judas me sold,
His covetousness for to advance:
‘Mark whom I kiss, the same do hold!’
The same is he shall lead the dance.

Before Pilate the Jews [my foes] me brought,
Where Barabbas had deliverance;
They scourged me and set me at nought,
Judged me to die to lead the dance.

Then on the cross hanged I was [then hanged was I on the rood],
Where a spear my heart did glance;
There issued forth both water and blood,
To call my true love to my dance.

This carol, ostensibly for Christmas, has now led us all the way to Easter Saturday:

Then down to hell I took my way
For my true love’s deliverance,
And rose again on the third day,
Up to my true love and the dance.

And finally onward and upward to the Ascension:

Then up to heaven I did ascend,
Where now I dwell in sure substance
On the right hand of God, than man
May come unto the general dance.

Thus “the general dance” is revealed to be not only our earthly life with Christ but also the heavenly wedding banquet—as well the literal dance that may have accompanied the finale of the mystery play.

Whatever function it may have originally served, “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” hearkens back to an era when theological ideas were part of everyone’s mental awareness, ripe for poetry and song. It is a reminder of a time before the Christmas holiday became covered with the sentimental sap that too often obscures it today. Starting with the Nativity, “Dancing Day” leads us through the whole liturgical year with Christ’s Baptism, Temptation, Betrayal, Passion, Descent into Hell, Resurrection, and Ascension into glory—the whole history of salvation. That is why it is a carol for all seasons.

The tune that Sandys paired with the text of “Dancing Day” is a traditional one of simple and dance-like charm. Several composers have created more elaborate musical compositions on the text. Here’s a look at three of the finest, preceded by a well-known arrangement of the original tune by Sir David Willcocks.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

The English composer Holst, most loved for his his orchestral suite The Planets, produced a good deal of sacred choral music during his career. He wrote This have I done for my true love (or The Dancing Day) in 1916 for annual choral festival he had founded in the town of Essex, where he often retreated to compose.

Holst sets the entire poem, skillfully overlapping some verses to drive the momentum of the narrative and sometimes intermingling the verse and refrain. The basic melody is folk-like, enriched by modal harmonies that turn darker and more ambiguous in the Passion portion of the text, then bright and luminous at the end. The final verse is full and triumphant, with the words “This have I done” strongly marked. The composer avoids the foursquare and achieves perfect animation and flow in this little gem.

Holst rediscovered the British musical heritage of folk song and sacred polyphony, contributing to the “English musical renaissance” of the early 20th century. He considered “The Dancing Day” one of the best of his shorter choral pieces.

John Gardner (1917-2011)

Gardner followed Holst as music director at St. Paul’s Girls School in London, where in 1965 he published his Two Carols. The first of these, “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” proved to be the hit of his career. Gardner set only the first three verses of the poem (the Christmas portion, so to speak) and scored his piece for chorus, piano, and percussion, accenting the “dance” image. With its shifting meters, infectiously syncopated rhythms and warm harmonies, it is both accessibly popular and distinctly modern. It has become a favorite of choral groups everywhere.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Here we are entering “advanced” musical territory, yet Stravinsky’s piece is not forbidding, and one can come to love its austere beauty. It forms a part of his 1952 Cantata for soprano, tenor, women’s chorus, and five instruments. Each movement is based on an old English poem, with the “Lyke Wake Dirge” (about the soul’s journey to Purgatory) forming a recurring refrain throughout. The “Dancing Day” movement bears the heading “Sacred History” and puts the spotlight on the solo tenor, who steps into the role of Christ.

The composer calls the movement a ricercar, a Renaissance term denoting “an elaborate composition in canonic or fugal style.” The piece is intricately conceived, with canons and melodies presented in retrograde (backwards) and inverted order. Yet never is the listener aware of these technical procedures, and the effect of the work is hypnotic and poetic.

The eleven verses of the poem unfold slowly and meditatively, but Stravinsky points up the drama at various points of the text—notably in the verses dealing with the crucifixion, and a transcendent lift to the melody at “and rose again on the third day” recalling Bach’s Passion music. The refrain of “To call my true love to my dance” is at first almost bluesy in its harmonies, while subsequent repetitions have a stately grace.

Although Stravinsky is beginning to experiment with Arnold Schoenberg’s serial technique, his “Dancing Day” is neither atonal nor particularly dissonant. Like his 1948 Mass, this is music that sounds ancient and modern at the same time, and it may very well have influenced such latter-day “mystical minimalists” as Arvo Pärt. It certainly deserves to be better known and more frequently performed. The recording to own is that featuring tenor Jan Kobow and the RIAS Kammerchor, where the piece glows like a medieval illuminated manuscript.

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The featured image is “Rothschild Miscellany,” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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