By Don MacGillivray
Christmas carols have a long history in western culture. With their foundations in the music and songs of the pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations, it took many years for the carol to gain significance in the newly-forming religious celebrations.
Latin hymns such as “Savior of the Nations, Come” dating from the 4th century, may be the earliest Christmas carol still in existence. In the ninth and tenth centuries, Christmas Prose was introduced in North European monasteries and this developed into sequenced, rhymed stanzas.
By the time of the 13th century, few people were celebrating Christmas. St. Francis of Assisi in Italy expanded the Christmas celebration into a “Passion Play” about the birth of Christ. He organized nativity pageants featuring actors, animals and music.
The people in the plays sang songs that told the story of Christmas and for the first time, they were sung in a language that people could understand. This expanded to France, Germany, and other areas of Europe and a tradition of popular Christmas music developed.
During the 14th and 15th centuries, carols became an important contribution to medieval English music. Most of these carols from the Renaissance were loosely-based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and other religious themes.
One of the largest collection of English carols appeared in a 1426 work of a Shropshire chaplain when he put together twenty five “caroles of Cristemas”.
In England as well as in several other countries European countries, an old tradition was followed of singing Christmas carols where the peasants would travel in groups from house to house, singing carols to their feudal lords. For this they were often rewarded with gifts, money, mince pies, or an appropriate beverage in exchange for their blessings and goodwill.
This practice developed from the older term of “wassailing” which is a wish “to be in good health”. The carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is about this practice. Sometimes however, carolers demanded their rewards as in the songs refrain, “Now bring us some figgy pudding. . . . We won’t go until we’ve got some.” It was only later that this practice developed into carolers going from house to house for the enjoyment of everyone.
Carols gained in popularity after the Reformation in the countries where Protestant churches gained prominence. This was because music and public participation were welcomed by the Lutheran reformation.
With the English Puritan movement in 1647, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was banned and almost lost entirely.
Carols survived as people still sang them in secret, but it took the English-speaking world nearly 200 years to rediscover Christmas fully, and it was largely through the retention of these songs.
Many carols we know today were written during the second half of the nineteenth century. In 1822, Member of Parliament and amateur historian, Davies Gilbert, published a compilation of “ancient Christmas carols” including “The First Nowell” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
In 1840, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert imported the Continental-style of Christmas to England so that many of the elements of todays Christmas tradition are from European customs.
Many new carols, such as “Good King Wenceslas”, were written in the Victorian period. The custom of singing carols in the streets was renewed and popular church services on Christmas Eve included carols.
Almost all the well-known carols were not sung in church until the second half of the 19th century.
Isaac Watts composed “Joy to the World”, Charles Wesley wrote “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”, and “Silent Night” came from Austria, but was not translated into English until 1871.
Christmas has adopted several tunes that were written for other events. Prime examples of these are “Jingle Bells” that began as song in celebration of Thanksgiving and Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, that was written for the celebration of Easter.
The Christmas of the 20th century is an extension of the Victorian era, just as modern carols are an outgrowth of its 19th century tunes.
“White Christmas,” written in 1940, became a Christmas standard and the biggest pop tune of all time thanks in part to growing cultural nostalgia of wartime soldiers. The appearance of non- religious Christmas carols came into being and a new generation of carols rose by appealing more to the Yuletide mood than to the religious character of the holiday season.
Carols carry us back to a time before Shakespeare, but most are relatively modern tunes especially those secular in character. A continuity and comfort in a changing world, Christmas carols are a window to our past. It is safe to say they will be with us far into the future in one form or another.