The history of Christmas carols

You hear them being played left, right, and centre, and are seemingly inescapable post-Halloween, but whether you love them or you hate them, you’ll likely know the lyrics to at least one classic tune. But do you know where carols actually come from?

‘Carol’ from the Old French ‘carole’, meaning to dance and sing in a circle, is defined as ‘a religious folk song or popular hymn, particularly one associated with Christmas’. This root in folk music and religion is especially pertinent, given the origin of carols in pagan tradition. Thousands of years ago, across Europe, pagans would sing songs on the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, to bring joy and give thanks during the darkest, coldest season.

In Europe at least, it was early Christians who took these songs and tied them closely to Christmas and Christianity. As early as 129 AD, the Angel’s Hymn was declared a regular song for Christmas services in Rome, while in Jerusalem, Greek Orthodox carols were widespread by 760. Poems and stories from religious texts would typically be put to music, resulting in carols with clear ties to the Bible. As the popularity of this music spread, more and more people from across the continent began to contribute their own tunes, drawing on popular music, developing what we would now recognise as a Christmas carol.

“songs were typically sung by travelling troupes of performers, or privately, in the home”

While these songs were originally in Latin, and difficult for the average person to understand, by 1410, new carols in an array of languages began popping up, especially in Western Europe. The songs were typically sung by travelling troupes of performers, or privately, in the home, and developed the verse-refrain structure that is still common in carols and general Christmas music to this day. The first carols to appear in English were that of a Shropshire chaplain named John Awdlay, who in 1426 wrote of twenty-five ‘caroles of Cristemas’, which were sung from house to house as part of wider communal celebrations of Christmas and other important times of year like the harvest.

Puritan power in the 1600s led to the outlawing of carols in England, though they were still incredibly popular. Up and down the country, they were adapted and infused with more localised language and themes, becoming unique and personal to their singers. By the eighteenth century, early forms of carols such as Good King Wenceslas appeared across Europe, but it wasn’t until the Victorians fell in love with Christmas (they introduced Christmas trees to the UK!) that carols became easily accessible through mass-printed carol books. The Victorians developed the image of the quintessential ‘English’ Christmas and created famous carols like Silent Night.

“Bill Crosby’s version of Irving Berlin’s 1942 classic White Christmas, remains the world’s best-selling single of all time”

In the early 1900s, composers and singers began to record their own versions of carols, or write new ones, launching them into the mainstream. With this, there began a shift away from wholly religious themes to secular ones, and the rise of more general Christmas music, which was less hymn-like and inspired by swing, jazz, and rock-n-roll music . The eighteenth century was most influential, the carols which developed them still being sung today, but the twentieth century demonstrated the biggest change in the Christmas genre. Popular figures, from Nat King Cole to Eartha Kitt, brought forth iterations which have shaped the genre ever since. In fact, Bill Crosby’s version of Irving Berlin’s 1942 classic White Christmas, remains the world’s best-selling single of all time.

Carols have a long and storied history, beginning as fire-side, pagan songs, and now containing satire, romance, and political edges, and are an important part of Christmas celebrations around the globe. Their lyrics are well-known and well-loved, representing a significant part of our culture. They were sung in the trenches of World War One, and on the International Space Station, to celebrate the season and remind the singers of home. Whether you sing them in a place of worship or while drinking eggnog around the tree, they’re staples of the holiday season.

Esme Johnson

Featured image courtesy of  Mike M via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here.

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