The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The holidays have officially begun!

It’s been quite some time since I last posted, due primarily to a hectic work schedule and our most recent holiday celebration, Thanksgiving. I enjoyed a beautiful time with family, and two adorable puppies! Hopefully, you all had a blessed Thanksgiving as well, reflecting upon the wonders and joys of life.

Even before November ended, the Christmas music was already playing in our home. I have friends who, if it were permissible, would listen to Christmas music all year round.

Yes, you can cringe.

However, there is a certain spirit, musicality, even aura about Christmas music that brings hope, healing, laughter, joy, and peace to the listener. We might consider songs such as ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ trivial and silly (especially the later), but you can’t help but join in on the chorus, belting out “Oh what fun it is to ride on a one-horse open sleigh!” The very sounds and smells of the season bring joy to our hearts. Childhood memories engros and warm our souls.

Have you ever wondered why there is such a genre as ‘Christmas music’? You don’t hear people discussing their favorite Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, or even Independence Day music.

And you never hear anyone singing Labor Day carols.

So why do we have Christmas carols? What even are carols and where do they come from? Why has singing carols become a worldwide tradition?

Origins & Early History of the Christmas Carol

Singing and caroling at Christmas are one of the oldest folk customs of the day, present since the time when Christianity and the Christmas season were in their infancies. The music and sounds of Christmas vary in genre and style, some concentrating on the joviality of the holiday and other, more traditional carols praising the birth of Jesus Christ. In general, though, the word ‘carol’ in today’s vocabulary means ‘singing, joy, devotion, festive spirit, and even dancing.’

Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas Carols. The term originally meant ‘circle dance,’ ‘a song of praise and joy.’ These were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced round stone circles. Carols were also written and sung during the other three seasons as well.

Initially, the church looked down upon carols and carol singing as a pagan custom, not something worthy of redemption and most assuredly nothing they could incorporate into sacred services. However, in the countryside, many folk songs and Nativity carols were written and even gained popularity.

The Shift

Eventually, early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas and wrote Christian songs for people to sing rather than the pagan ones. In AD 129, a Roman Bishop declared that the “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another early Christmas Hymn was written in AD 760, by Comas of Jerusalem, for the Greek Orthodox Church. The tradition spread like wildfire amongst European composers, and soon many were writing ‘Christmas carols.’

However, not many people liked them as they were all written and sung in Latin, a language that the normal people couldn’t understand. By the time of the Middles Ages (the 1200s), most people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas altogether.

Francis of Assisi & The Middle Ages 

In 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi changed people’s perception of the carols by introducing these songs into the formal worship, substituting them for the traditional hymns, of the church during a Christmas Midnight Mass in a cave in Greccio, in the province of Umbria. He also started his Nativity Plays, where people sang ‘canticles’ that told the Nativity story. Sometimes, the choruses of the new carols were in Latin, but they usually were written in the nation’s common tongue. The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany, and other European countries.

Ever since then, carols caught on with the masses and were at their prime in the Middle Ages, when they were almost always a part of the mystery plays. Wandering minstrels and night watchmen would often pass their time by singing carols to themselves and the passersby. Minstrels traveled from home to home, singing carols and entertaining people in return for gifts.

Later musical troupes began singing carols and playing them for various events held during the Christmas season.

The Evolution of Christmas Carols

The earliest known carol was written in 1410. Sadly, only a very small fragment of it still exists. The song told about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Most carols from this time, and the Elizabethan period, are untrue narratives, very loosely based on the gospels, and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung in homes rather than in churches. As minstrels, watchmen, and troupes traveled throughout Europe, they changed lyrics for the local people wherever they went, which explains why many carols have evolved over the years. One excellent example is ‘I Saw Three Ships’.

image for Christmas Carols
Photo by N. on Unsplash

Oliver Cromwell & The English Commonwealth 

When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans assumed power in England in 1647, they banned Christmas celebrations and singing carols. To Cromwell and his fellow Puritans, carols and related Christmas festivities were not only abhorrent but also sinful. According to historical sources, they viewed the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25 as “popish,” a wasteful tradition that derived – with no biblical justification – from the Roman Catholic Church, thus threatening their core Christian beliefs. Nowhere, they argued, had God called upon mankind to celebrate Christ’s nativity in such a manner. In 1644, an Act of Parliament effectively banned the festival and in June 1647, the Long Parliament passed an ordinance confirming the abolition of the Christmas feast.

Nevertheless, carols survived. For the nearly two decades that the ban on Christmas held, semi-clandestine religious services marking Christ’s nativity continued to be held on December 25, and people sang in secret. Christmas carols essentially went underground – although some rebellious types determined to keep the carols alive did so more loudly than others.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Christmas ban was lifted and people could freely celebrate the holiday and special season.

The Victorian Era 

However, carols remained primarily unsung until the Victorian era, when William Sundays and Davis Gilbert collected many old Christmas songs from various English villages.

At this time, many orchestras and choirs were being assembled in the cities of England and people wanted Christmas songs to sing. As a result, carols once again became popular. Many new carols, such as ‘Good King Wenceslas’, were written in the Victorian period.

Twelve Days of Christmas Carols

Over the next twelve days, leading up to Christmas Eve, I will be posting a new article each day discussing a different Christmas carol. We will move from the oldest to the newest.

We will look at the song’s authorship and origin, its lyrical and musical evolution over time, and its worldview implications.

I’m also pleased to announce that we will have a guest author, Faith Murrell, contributing a few articles for this project. Go check out her blog, Contemplare, to read more of her amazing pieces.

Order of Christmas Carols:

  1. O Come, O Come Emmanuel
  2. O Come, All Ye Faithful
  3. Joy to the World
  4. Hark the Herald Angels Sing
  5. Silent Night
  6. The First Noel
  7. O Holy Night
  8. Jingle Bells
  9. Angels We Have Heard on High
  10. O Little Town of Bethlehem
  11. What Child Is This?
  12. Away in a Manger

I hope you enjoy these articles and learn more about your favorite Christmas carol!

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