Christmas Carols: A Musical History | History Hit

Christmas Carols: A Musical History

Painting by Swiss artist Hans Bachmann (1852 - 1917) 'A Christmas Carol in Lucerne' (1887)
Image Credit: Hans Bachmann (1852 - 1917), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most persistent and widely-enjoyed traditions associated with Christmas is carol singing. From the lullaby-like Away in a Manger to the rabble-rousing Good King Wenceslas, Christmas carols have been sung around the world for hundreds of years, and have existed since as early as 4th century AD.

However, in spite of their universal nature today, the origins of many carols remain obscure. Indeed, it is debated where the word ‘carol’ itself comes from, with some people maintaining that it comes from the French ‘carole‘, or the Latin ‘carula’, meaning a circular dance.

In addition, the very existence of carol singing has been threatened at different points throughout history, such as during the Puritan ban of the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun between 1644 and 1660.

So where did Christmas carols come from?

Early carols were pre-Christian songs

The earliest songs resembling carols were pagan melodies sung during winter solstice celebrations – normally around 22 December – as people danced around stone circles. To commemorate the birth of Jesus, at the same time of year, Christians later began singing Christian-oriented songs instead of pagan ones.

In 129, a Roman bishop was recorded stating that a song called Angel’s Hymn should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. In the 4th century, Latin hymns such as Veni redemptor gentium by Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, became increasingly popular. By the 9th century, composers across Europe had started writing ‘Christmas carols’. However, owing to the fact they were written and sung in Latin, they weren’t universally well-known or even liked.

Trio of musicians playing an aulos, cymbala, and tympanum (mosaic from Pompeii)

Image Credit: Sailko, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Christmas sequence (or prose) was introduced to monasteries in northern Europe, and were developed by Bernard of Clairvaux into a series of rhymed stanzas. In the 12th century, a Parisian monk called Adam of Saint Victor began to take music from popular songs to develop what more closely resembles a traditional Christmas carol.

The medieval period popularised carol singing

Francis of Assisi strongly encouraged a tradition of singing Christian songs in regional native languages in 13th century France as part of his ‘nativity plays’, which narrated the story of Christianity via songs or ‘canticles’. Often, these were in English, rather than Latin, meaning ordinary folk could understand and join in the carols.

As such, Franciscan Friars were largely responsible for the spread of Christmas carols across Germany, Italy, Spain and France. In addition, they promoted a style of dancing in a circle with linked hands during carol singing.

The title of England’s oldest surviving carol is debated

Many carols which first became popular, such as Good King Wenceslas and Good Christian Men, Rejoice were printed in a collection of late medieval Latin songs called Piae Cantiones, first published in 1582. Adeste Fideles (or O Come All Ye Faithful) appeared as it is sung today in the mid 18th-century, though the words may have originated in the 13th century.

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Indeed, it’s unclear which Christmas carol is the oldest to survive in England; many historians suggest that While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night, which features a 16th century melody and 17th century words, is the oldest. However, it wasn’t conclusively put together until the 19th century, meaning that others cite O Come All Ye Faithful, which was fully completed by the end of the 18th century, as the title holder.

Away in a Manger was falsely attributed to Martin Luther

After the Reformation, carols gained in popularity in countries where Protestantism was taking hold, since Lutheranism strongly encouraged music as a part of worship. Even during the years of the Puritan ‘ban’ on Christmas, secretive religious services were held that included carol singing. The carol Away in A Manger first appeared in various American magazines in the 1880s.

It was claimed that the famous hymn was a 16th century lullaby penned by German reformer Martin Luther, and was known as Luther’s Cradle Song for decades. However, there is very little evidence to support the claim; instead, it was likely first composed or arranged in the 19th century.

Carol singing was revived in Victorian Britain

When the Puritans came to power in the 1640s, Christmas traditions such as carol singing were repressed. However, many were still sung in secret. Nonetheless, carols were mainly unsung until the Victorian era, when two men, William Sandys and Davis Gilbert, collected old Christmas music from villages in England and published a collection of them in Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern (1833). Carols in the collection included God Rest Ye Merry, GentlemenThe First NoelI Saw Three Ships and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Victorian Christmas Card

Image Credit: Public Domain

From then on, carols were sung as folk songs in venues such as pubs, but they often weren’t considered to be ‘proper’ songs by the middle and upper classes, so weren’t sung in churches. Instead, official carol singers known as ‘Waits’ – named because they sang on Christmas Eve, also known as ‘watchnight’ or ‘waitnight’ – were led by local council or church leaders, and were permitted to take money from the public.

Various other carol collections such as Christmas Carols, New and Old (1871) and Carols Old and Carols New (1916) were met with varied success. However, it was the publication of The Oxford Book of Carols (1928), which was widely used amongst choirs and congregations, that propelled Christmas carols back into the spotlight. It remains in print today.

Lucy Davidson