Dancing in the streets; drinking songs; foreigners changing traditions.
Sound like an odd and confusing mix? Well, it’s all part of the history of Christmas carols.
True Christmas carols — like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” — really only date to the 19th century. And, in most cases, the beginnings of many carols were distinctly secular.
True carols derive from peasant dances with catchy tunes so everyone could sing along. The French word carole, which means “to dance in a circle,” comes to us from an old Greek word choraulein which means “to dance to a flute.” (The Latin word choraula means much the same.) Think about dancing around a Maypole and you get the idea.
Back in Assisi
St. Francis of Assisi, back in the early 13th century, started the traditions that led to true Christmas carols, tunes that make us want to dance. Francis loved the humanity of Jesus and he created Nativity scenes — complete with live animals and babies — to illustrate this for people. Francis also loved dancing for joy that Christ was born and he even wrote a Christmas carol called Psalmus in Nativitate. One of its lyrics reads: “O, my heart is full of mirth, at Jesus’ birth.” The carol was later incorporated into Handel’s “Messiah.”
Of course, there were Christmas songs before the time of St. Francis. Technically, the first Christmas carol appears in Luke’s Gospel, written around the year 85 A.D., sung by angels: “Glory to God in the highest.” (This is sometimes called “the Angelic Hymn.”) The words are repeated in the now-familiar carol, “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
It wasn’t until the fourth century, though, that the church began celebrating a Nativity feast and that is when music about Christ’s birth in Bethlehem began to appear in churches. For example, St. Hilary of Poiters (315-367) is credited with the song, “Jesus, Light of All Nations.” And the great theologian, St. Ambrose, (340-397) is said to have penned “Come, Redeemer of Nations.” Still familiar today is “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” written by Marcus Aurelius Prudentius, a fifth century layman and Christian poet.
However, most of these songs were not in a true carol style, but composed to be performed by soloists, paired with choirs, in Latin. With Francis, and the Franciscans who followed him, carols became familiar to everyday people — and sung in common language. The songs were soon taken up by traveling minstrels and became holiday fare in homes of the wealthy. Eventually, some of the more popular, and religious-themed, of these songs began to be used as processionals before Masses during the Christmas season.
While many of the carols were religious in nature, others got a bit on the rowdy side. No doubt this is because some were used for celebrations which included alcohol, such as wassailing in 15th-century England. From here we gained carols such as “Here We Come A-wassailing” and “The Boar’s Head Carol” which was popular in the time of Henry VIII.
It seems that singing in the streets and going door to door seeking treats of food or drink goes back to pagan times. The term “wassail” comes to us from the Old Norse ves heill meaning “be well,” or a wish for good health. But by the Middle Ages, wassailers (a word that means “carousers”) entertaining in the streets sang many types of songs, most of which became Christian holiday songs. These people were the ancestors of modern carolers.
Caroling also became a popular way for beggars and the poor to gain extra money by singing carols in the streets. According to “Project Britain,” a website about British culture and history, the traditional time for carol singing in medieval times began on Dec. 21 (the feast of St. Thomas) and lasted until Christmas morning.
However, the bawdiness of some of the songs, as well as the large groups of beggars who gathered in larger cities, were part of what fueled Puritans to ban holiday singing — and even Christmas celebrations. Christmas itself was banned by England’s Parliament in 1647. (This lasted until 1660.) In the newly forming United States, the Puritans of New England banned Christmas celebrations as well. For its Christmas flavor, colonial Americans had to turn to the traditions of German soldiers hired to fight in the Revolutionary War. In Boston, Christmas was outlawed from 1659-1681 and only gained popularity slowly after that.
In continental Europe, however, Christmas carols had continued, as had Christmas celebrations. Martin Luther (d. 1546) is honored as starting the tradition of Christmas trees and is even credited with writing a Christmas carol: “Away in the Manger.” However, it seems that this carol first appeared on the scene nearly 300 years after Luther; Luther’s link comes in when the song received the subtitle, “Luther’s Cradle Hymn,” in the late 19th century in Philadelphia.
The advent of carols — and a lot of Christmas celebrations as we know them today — is largely due to the influence of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert. The couple was married in 1840 and it was Albert, who was German, who introduced a Christmas tree into the royal court, along with other customs from his childhood — including Christmas carols. Since the British Empire spanned the globe during the 19th century, the court customs soon spread worldwide.
Once the highly popular publications — “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823 in Tory, N.Y.) and “A Christmas Carol” (published in London in 1843) — hit the scene, Christmas celebrations, with presents, feasts and lots of carols, became a lasting part of the holiday.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Ecclesiastical Review”; catholicculture.org; “Reformed Worship”; “The Oxford Book of Carols”; bbc.co.uk; “Christmas Carols” at hubpages.com; projectbritain.com; slate.com; and time.com.