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The History of Christmas Carols

by Les Hewitt

Few Christmas traditions pre-date the singing of holiday tunes during the most festive season of the year. The history of Christmas carols has been going strong across Europe for thousands of years. It is only in more recent times that this yuletide song making has been regarded as “caroling.”

history of christmas carols

Children carolers in Bucharest, 1929. Public domain, Nicolae Ionescu.

Winter Solstice Roots

The history of Christmas carols in Europe goes back to Pagan Winter Solstice celebrations. Revelers not singing celebratory songs would usually dance around stone circles. In its original form, the word ‘carol’ had several meanings. Pagans would cite it as a dance to something. In fact, the word carol derived from the French word carole, which was a type of circular procession of dancers and singers. Carol also applies to songs of praise and joy. However, in the Pagan tradition, these celebrations took place throughout the year and not just in or around wintertime. As generations passed, carol singing became more synonymous with the Christmas holiday.

Chanting and song have been a part of rituals and celebrations from some of the earliest of societies.

Antiquity Now

The First Christmas Carol 2nd Century

Almost immediately after Christianity began to rise and spread through Europe, the older Pagan traditions were superseded by Christian observances. One of the earliest versions of a carol was a song that was titled the Hymn of the Angels or Gloria in Excelsis. The song details the words of the angels after the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. One Roman bishop, Telesphorus, firmly believed that the song should be used during a Christmas service in Rome in AD 129 but strictly by bishops. You can listen to a version of it below.

Issues With Latin Carols

Six hundred years after, Comas of Jerusalem composed another famous early example of a carol. Written especially for the Greek Orthodox Church, Comas’ hymn set something of a precedent for composers all across Europe, and other songwriters followed suit with a slew of additional tunes. This trend only became popular for a while, as the novelty quickly wore off. The main problem behind this apparent fad was that the language of every carol was Latin. Much of the population did not understand or speak Latin. Thus, the Middle Ages saw a drastic drop in the popularity of caroling and, generally, of Christmas altogether.

Christmas Caroling Goes Public 1200s

The “Father of Christmas carols” was Saint Francis of Assisi. In Greccio, Italy, 1223, St. Francis created nativity scenes in a cave, complete with live animals, and invited the villagers to gather around the manger while he spoke about baby Jesus. Worshippers sang hymns, or “canticles,” as St. Francis called them. Only some of the new carols were sung in Latin, and, thus, the audience was able to participate in the songs of praise. This idea quickly spread to France, Spain, and Germany before spreading further afield in Europe.

The First English Carols Emerge 1400s

Caroling had become more widespread when the first English carols emerged in the early 1400s. John Audelay, an English priest and poet, was a significant contributor to the history of Christmas carols when he composed at least 25 Yuletide hymns in English that he and a group of carolers sang from house to house. Audelay’s songs mostly contained themes of repentance, rather than holiday cheer. And it wasn’t until later when Christmas carol lyrics began to focus more on the story of Jesus.

In the 1500s, King Henry VIII wrote a carol called, Green Groweth the Holly. You can listen to an excerpt below.

Christmas Carols Are Banned in the UK 1600s

The tradition of Christmas carols continued in the UK for another 225 years and only stopped when a new regime came to power. A radical Puritan and political figure of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell outlawed the public singing of carols in 1644. In fact, he banned the celebration of Christmas altogether. However, as most people would take the activity underground and perform in secret, Christmas carol traditions managed to survive this period in history.

In 1660, Restoration of the British monarchy abolished all legislation between 1642 and 1660. At that time, everyone came out from hiding to celebrate Christmas once again with feasts, festivities, and, of course, singing.

Resurgence of Caroling

Still, public performances would not be seen much on British streets until two men in the 1800s – William Sandys and Davis Gilbert – began collecting old seasonal music from villages all over England. While Gilbert published two small collections of carols, Sandys collected and published the lyrics and tunes to over 100 carols from different times periods and places. His is, by far, one of the biggest contributions to the history of Christmas carols and their resurgence. Not for the first time, carol singing in public became hugely popular. Local leaders appointed prominent people to become official carol singers.

Composers created many new carols to cope with the demand, and quite a few of these still exist today, such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and We Three Kings of Orient. Three additional noteworthy titles, Good King WenceslasSilent Night, and The Twelve Days of Christmas have interesting origins all of their own.

Good King Wenceslas

John Mason Neale was studying at Sackville College in East Grinstead, Sussex, when he wrote a modern Christmas carol to a traditional folk tune. In his carol, the Duke (or King) of the ancient Central European area of Bohemia – or the modern-day Czech Republic – saw peasants on Boxing Day without much in the way of material belongings. The King took out food and firewood for them to use. All of this was dated to about 1000 years ago and is now considered to be fictional. The real King Wenceslas is an altogether different ruler.

Wenceslas’ father passed away when he was just 12 years old. Not being old enough to assume the throne, his mother ruled instead. It is generally believed that his father was a Christian and his mother was a Pagan. During her reign, Wenceslas’ Christian Grandmother cared for him in the ways that she was accustomed to. As a result, Wenceslas mother banished his grandmother to a remote castle where the Queen’s Guards murdered her. However, Wenceslas held fast to his upbringing and smuggled in local Bishops who taught him the Bible. On his 18th birthday, Wenceslas reclaimed the throne. Local legends insist that he banished his mother and all of her Pagan followers from his lands.

Silent Night

Father Joseph Mohr arguably wrote the words to the best known Christmas carol of all time in Mariapfarr, Austria. Two years later in 1818, Franz Xavier Gruber, a local school teacher, and Mohr’s friend, provided the music for his lyrics. This collaboration arrived just in time for the St. Nicholas Church’s Christmas service in the Austrian town of Oberndorf. The arrangement was originally meant for the guitar, but after several years of effort, someone created another version for the church organ. However, legend has it that during rehearsals, the organ suffered damaged and was unable to produce a single note. Mohr agreed to perform the carol by guitar.

Another of Mohr’s suggestions did go ahead, even though it surprised quite a few parents. Mohr wanted the children of the village to debut the carol at the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Their performance was so flawless and they all learned the lyrics so well that they did not require any accompaniment at all.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Between 1558 and 1829, practicing Catholicism in the UK was illegal. During this time, even the reading of a bible was an offense that warranted a prison term. Therefore, some people believe that The Twelve Days of Christmas was really a tool that secretly taught children all about Catholic ways. There is no real evidence to back up this assumption. It may be that the addition of any Catholic meanings occurred at a much later date. Some speculate that an old folk song was the origin of The Twelve Days of Christmas that changed throughout time.

A song written on or even before 1625 adds some religious context to the twelve days regarded as the Christmas Holiday. This tune, A New Dial or In Those Twelve Days, was aimed at Catholics and Protestants alike. In the older version, ‘True Love’ was supposed to represent God and the love for the world as a whole. “Me” was a generalization of all people looking forward to receiving the gifts mentioned. The gifts as well had more symbolic meanings than a first glance would allow.

Possible glossary of the Twelve Days of Christmas:

A partridge in a Pear Tree: Either referring to God or Jesus during the crucifixion.
Two Turtle Doves: Both Testaments of the Bible.
Three French Hens: Each member of the Holy Trinity. (The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost).
Four Calling Birds: Four Gospels of the New Testament, perhaps even the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Five Gold Rings: All five senses, alternatively, the Torah or the Pentateuch.
Six Geese a-laying: Six days of creation.
Seven Swans a-swimming: Could refer to Seven Liberal Arts studied in Medieval Universities or the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Eight Maids a-milking: The Beatitudes.
Nine Ladies Dancing: The Nine Muses from Greek Mythology.
Ten Lords a-leaping: The Ten Commandments.
Eleven Pipers Piping: 11,000 martyrs of the Christian faith or the eleven faithful Disciples of Jesus.
Twelve Drummers Drumming: All of Jesus’ closest disciples – including Judas Iscariot.

Joining the History of Christmas Carols

Festive music goes beyond known and familiar Christmas carols. Megastar musicians have also tried to cash in on festive music in the approach to Christmas. In the UK, the more popular anthems sung at countless Christmas parties would include Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody, Wizzard’s I wish it could be Christmas Everyday, The Pogues Fairytale of New York and Wham’s Last Christmas. There are plenty of others that are equally popular and just as traditional as Victorian Yuletide classics. Only time will tell if these go on to become vetted pieces in the history of Christmas carols.

Why Christmas
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