Carols are something that we mostly take for granted at this time of year, and we sing them unquestioningly as part of our Christmas celebrations. But what are their origins and why are they so specific to Christmas?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a Christmas carol is “a traditional or religious song that people sing at Christmas”, and according to the Collins Dictionary it is “a joyful hymn or religious song, celebrating the birth of Christ”. Of course, the Christmas that we know is a Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus, but really it dates back to pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Our 21st century celebrations of Christmas are extremely commercialised and, unless you are religious, it seems unlikely that what you are actually celebrating is the birth of Jesus, so why do we continue to sing carols at Christmas?
Thousands of years ago, some form of carols were sung as part of the pagan Winter Solstice celebrations. When Christmas began to be observed around the same time, Christian songs and hymns began to replace the pagan songs in order to celebrate the birth of Jesus. One of the earliest recorded Christmas carols was the ‘Angel’s Hymn’ in 129 AD, which a Roman Bishop said should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Slowly but surely, more and more Christian Christmas carols began to be written, and some favourite traditional carols that are thought to date from the Middle Ages include ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ and ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night’. A large number of the most popular carols nowadays are from the 19th century, including ‘Silent Night’ in 1818, ‘Hark! The Herald’ in 1840, and ‘Good King Wenceslas’ in 1853. With the advent of the Victorian Christmas, it became a holiday widely enjoyed by families and music in the home was a big part of the celebrations. It became tradition to sing carols after the Christmas meal, and it’s believed that the first Christmas carol service was held in 1880 at Truro Cathedral, organised by Edward White Benson, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The tradition of ‘wassailing’ existed as far back as Anglo-Saxon times, and was a toast. The word ‘wassail’ probably originates from the Old Norse ‘ves heill’, which means ‘be well and in good health’. By the 19th century, wassailers had become people who went round their town, gathering in groups to perform carols for passers-by. They would be rewarded with a hot drink, known as ‘wassail’, or a mince pie. This tradition has continued to the present day, with large carolling groups gathering in public spaces, and smaller groups going door to door, usually in return for a donation to charity.
Christmas carols have musical elements that make them easily distinguishable from other songs and hymns, with more traditional ones containing stirring melodies mixed with minor and diminished chords, such as the mix of major and minor melody lines in ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. Their lyrics are often nostalgic, although both sombre and uplifting. Since they are focused on the story of the miracle of Jesus’s birth, their overall message is about awe, humility, hope and joy. In more modern Christmas pop music, you’ll likely hear a stick of ‘sleigh bells’ to provide you with an immediate Christmas auditory association.
The fact that we usually sing carols in groups means that we associate them with a sense of community happiness, especially since they are sung at Christmas which is generally thought of as a joyful time of year. Despite their religious origins, they continue to play a large role in many people's Christmas celebrations, and more modern pop Christmas songs have moved away from the original theme of the birth of Jesus to simply celebrating Christmas as a time of year.
Now that you know a bit more about the history of Christmas carols and the tradition of going out to sing them, I hope that you will enjoy listening to and singing them even more!