by Jacy Burroughs
Today, we primarily associate the word “carol” with Christmas. However, the tradition of singing carols did not begin with Christianity, but actually with the pagan practices of celebrating the seasons. Songs were written and performed for each of the four seasons. However, only the tradition of singing during the winter has survived, not as a pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, but as a Christian celebration of Christmas.
Carol comes from the French word carole, which was a social dance of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries common in courtly and popular circles. Caroles were danced to refrain songs, in which a soloist would sing the verses and a chorus would sing the refrain in between each verse. These songs were meant to accompany dance. The refrain song was the form used for carols in medieval times.
The first songs written about Christmas can be dated back to AD 129. However, they were called hymns, not carols, and were written in Latin. Because most Christmas hymns were written in Latin, they could only be understood by the elite few. Thus, the vast majority of Christians didn’t care for singing Christmas hymns. This was changed in 1223, when St. Francis of Assisi started his Nativity Plays in Italy, in which songs, called canticles, were sung that narrated the Christmas story. The audience loved the Nativity Plays because they were mostly in the native language (with a few Latin choruses thrown in).
Soon, the tradition of singing Christmas carols spread throughout Europe by traveling minstrels singing for entertainment. Because these light-hearted Christmas carols did not quote Scripture exactly nor were they written in Latin, they were not considered appropriate for church services.
During the Reformation, which began in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Catholic Church in Saxony, the common people were afforded more freedoms in church, including worshiping in the language of their choice. As a result, Christmas carols began appearing again in church services.
The first collection of Christmas carols appeared in 1833 in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern by William Sandys. This included songs like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “The First Noel,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” the last of which originated in the thirteenth century. This collection revived the singing of Christmas carols and led to the tradition of caroling from home to home. Many churches have a Candlelight Service on Christmas Eve during which carols are sung.
While the term carol originally referred to songs with religious origins, today Christmas carols also include holiday favorites like “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” which do not specifically have a religious reference. Today, there are hundreds of popular Christmas carols.
Jacy Burroughs is the Online Merchandiser and Social Media Manager for Sheet Music Plus. She has degrees in horn performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a freelance horn player in the Bay Area.