Christmas Carols: Custom, Controversy and Celebration
Posted on 16th November 2016 at 14:00
Christmas Carols are totally evocative of an old-fashioned holiday season.
Today, they are celebrated in carol services like the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge, where the story of the Nativity is told with singing and Bible readings. We are familiar with many of the tunes from childhood. But the Christmas carol was not always so acceptable, or even religious.
The word carol originates around 1300, derived from the French word carole, a kind of round dance accompanied by singers. There are similar words in Medieval Latin – choraula, which was a dance to music played on a flute, from the Latin word choraules meaning flute player – and also in Greek where the word khoraules means flute player who accompanies the choral dance.
From around 1500 C.E. the word was used to refer to joyful Christmas songs.
Thousands of years ago, people sang pagan hymns for the Winter Solstice. Over time, these pagan rituals were replaced with Christian ceremonies. The first Christmas hymns have their roots in fourth century Rome where Latin hymns were austere theological devices emphasising belief in the incarnation. Christmas music also developed in the monasteries during the ninth and tenth centuries, but this was in the form of rhymed stanzas, not songs.
In 1223 Francis of Assisi started his Nativity Plays during which the story of Christmas was sung in Italian with some choruses in Latin. This prompted a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs to develop in Italy, France and Germany, sung in the language of the people. The practice of having a crib or nativity scene in churches during the Christmas season is thanks to Francis of Assisi.
In France Carols were known as Noël, a word which can be found in English Carols often as Nowell due to the Norman influences on the English culture in the Middle Ages. In England, they derive from Medieval English songs. There were different types of carol – the main one being for dancing and walking in procession. Some were religious, featuring monophonic music, and towards the 15th and 16th centuries, there were polyphonic carols with two, three or even four parts.
The Middle Ages Carol followed the following format:
Verses (stanzas) of uniform structure
Burden repeated after each verse
It is believed that the alternation between the burden and verse corresponded with the alternation of chorus and soloists.
The Carols were not folksongs, but were typically English with angular melodies, often with triple rhythms. They were not just about Christmas though they were often religious and celebratory. Even so, as late as 1435 Church Councils were condemning the singing of carols as a pagan practise.
The songs we know as carols were originally communal songs sung during celebrations. This included harvest time as well as Christmas, and the songs were sung by groups of wassailers.
Wassailing is the tradition of carol singing door to door. It is believed the word wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon toast Wæs þu hæl, meaning be thou hale or be in good health.
There were also official carol singers called Waits. These groups would be led by important local people such as council leaders, because these dignitaries had the legal power to take money from the public. They were called Waits because they only sang on Christmas Eve, which was known as watch-night or wait-night for the reason that the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them.
Wassailers were traditionally given food and drink as well as money. In the popular Christmas Carol “We wish you a Merry Christmas”, the last verse is very clear that, “We won’t go until we get some!”
Although the custom of carol singing had community beginnings and is still a popular activity today, in the later 19th Century it was actually regarded as a form of extortion and people other than Waits who went carol singing could be charged with begging. The custom of wassailing is still practiced in parts of Somerset, Dorset and Devon.
The first printed carols appeared in 1426 in a work by John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who lists 25 Caroles of Cristemas. Another early edition of printed Christmas Carols is from the collection of Wynkyn de Worde, Thomas Caxton’s apprentice and successor, published in 1521. One of the best-known carols from this collection is the Boar’s Head Carol which is still sung today.
In 16th Century Europe, the singing of carols was encouraged in church. Reformers such as Martin Luther wrote carols and welcomed music as part of religious worship. But in 1647, England was under Puritanical rule and the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was outlawed, along with the eating of mince pies. The songs survived because people sang them in secret, but the singing of Christmas carols became a political act!
These carols were revived in the Victorian era when new words were set to old melodies and many of the carols we sing today were also written during this time.
Two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected old Christmas carols from villages in England, and these were published in selections that were sung at home around the piano. At the start of the 18th century, the only really well known carol to find its way into the hymn-book was While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, which was written during the 17th century.
The First Noël, I Saw Three Ships, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing first appeared in print in the 1833 edition of Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern by William Sandys. Composers such as Arthur Sullivan helped to re-popularise the carol, and it is this period that gave rise to such favourites as Good King Wenceslas and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.
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