Christmas Carols: A Brief History

Though we often think of carols in association with church services, notably in the Christmas season, they began as anything but.

The word carol itself derives from the French carole, which referred in medieval times to a ring-dance. The first Christmas carols were banned from the church because they were festive dances, though there was singing and often accompaniment by musical instruments.

These were frowned upon by the church in the 13th century as holdovers from paganism. Carolers who arrived at a church on Christmas Eve would have to stand outside. As their singing would disturb the somber attitude of the service within the church, the doors were closed against them. Thus began the tradition of carolers strolling to churches, then homes, as people moved around with their singing and dancing, perhaps to keep warm.

The first time that carols were sung in church, it was the priest who sang them, and only the priest. Those in the congregation kept silent, as was the custom where only the priest would sing within the church. In those days, much of the service was sung by the priest, in Latin.

Most carols, then, began apart from church celebrations. Nearly 200 years ago, one of the few times a carol began within a church setting happened in Austria. The church organ broke down on the eve of Christmas, so the service would have no music if the organist and choir leader couldn’t think of something.

Within a short time they had prepared a song which was first sung by two choirmen, accompanied on a guitar by the organist. At least that’s the story, believed now by some to be a folk tale. Silent Night has become the best known and loved carol in Christendom. Today it’s sung in almost every language on the planet. (Follow the link to see some translations from the original German that differ from the words most of us know.)Christmas carols are distinguished from Christmas songs mostly by the reference in carols to Jesus or to something relating directly to Christmas. In other words, the church appropriated the songs it once found offensive, adopted them, then controlled their proliferation.

One of the best known Christmas songs is Jingle Bells. While this song is appropriate for the Christmas season, it originated in the USA for the purpose of being a carol for Thanksgiving. Jingle Bells, it was originally hoped, would become the Thanksgiving carol. While it refers to sleighs and bells and snow, which few Americans see on their Thanksgiving in late November these days, it was more common for winter weather to have begun by that time of year in the past when Europe was still coming out of the Little Ice Age and America itself was colder than it is today.

Go Tell It On The Mountain, written by John W. Work, Jr., began as an African-American spiritual that gave hope to people who had little of it a century ago. Its words have been adapted numerous times by various groups for different settings and purposes, but the music continues to inspire. The song has a theme and the music a style that Europeans took to, so it was adopted by Christians around the world when Britain was home to the world’s largest empire.Carols, many people feel, do something for us that other Christmas songs don’t. They bring back memories of happy times from Christmases past. They always have a positive message and people who know them find it hard to stand by and not join in when others begin to sing them.

Perhaps more than any other feature of the Christmas season, the singing of carols inspires people to what we often call “the true meaning of Christmas,” helping us believe that there is more to Christmas than overloading the credit cards.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how, what and when to teach children the life skills and knowledge they need to be competent and confident adults, including being inspired by music.
Learn more at http://billallin.com

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