Read “Carols of All Nations” Poem
A carol is a festive song, generally religious but not necessarily connected with church worship, and often with a dance-like or popular character. Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas Carols. They were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations and accompanied by flutes as people danced round stone circles.
The word carol, derived from the Old French word carole, actually means dance, or a song of praise and joy. Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived. The traditional attributes of a carol are that it celebrates a seasonal topic, has alternating verses and chorus, and has danceable music.
Early Christians turned pagan solstice celebrations into Christmas celebrations and gave people Christian songs to sing instead of the pagan ones. Many composers all over Europe started to write carols, but not many people liked them because 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.
St. Francis of Assisi brought change when, in 1223, he started his Nativity Plays in Italy. Songs or 'canticles' were sung that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and participate in! The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
The earliest known carol was written around 1410, but only a very small fragment of it still exists. The carol was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Most Carols from this time and the Elizabethan period are actually fictional stories, very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung by travelling singers or minstrels in private homes, rather than in churches. These performers changed the words of the carols to fit the local people and area where they were travelling and performing. One carol that changed continually like this is 'I Saw Three Ships'.
In 1647, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England, and the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped. It was felt that they were “nonessential” and too closely associated with Roman Catholicism. However, the carols survived, as people still sang them in secret. During Victorian times two men, William Sandys and Davis Gilbert, re-discovered and compiled old Christmas music from villages in England. They were instrumental in arranging the music for church use, with religious instead of secular lyrics.
Much of what we know as Christmas music today was adopted from music that had been initially created for other purposes and later "adopted" to the season, often because it:
- Referred directly to the nativity of Jesus;
- Had a wintry theme, such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Let it Snow,” and “Sleigh Ride” (which oddly enough is about a birthday party, not a holiday party!);
- Referred to Christmas folklore, such as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, reindeer or elves, the North Pole, etc.
- Referred to Christmas traditions, such as the Twelve Days of Christmas, Christmas tree, wassailing, Yule log, stockings, lights, gifts, etc.
- Put people into the mood of the Christmas season.
Today, many churches have one or more musical services at Christmas time. In one of the most popular types of carol services, the church is only lit by candlelight and it feels very Christmassy. Carols by Candlelight services are held in countries all over the world.
Perhaps the most famous carol service is the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College in Cambridge, England. This service takes place on Christmas Eve and is broadcast live on BBC Radio and all over the world. In the US, local PBS stations broadcast it live and then may rebroadcast it several times on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This famous Service was first performed in 1918 as the college celebrated the end of the First World War. It is always started with a single choir boy singing a solo of the first verse of the Carol 'Once in Royal David's City'. A service of Nine Lessons and Carols has nine Bible readings (or lessons) that tell the Christmas story, with one or two carols between each lesson.
Craft: music note