A Chirp about Carol Singing


The word ‘Carol’ means a dance or song of praise and joy, originally written to be sung on various occasions throughout the year. Christmas carols are songs or hymns with lyrics specifically on the theme of  Christmas, and have been sung over the Christmas period for hundreds of years.

Singing and dancing at celebrations long predates Christianity. Over three thousand years ago (perhaps as far back as five) people would have danced and sung joyful songs as part of festive worship at stone circle like Stonehenge.

Early Christians adopted the pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice for Christmas, giving people Christian songs to sing. The first known Christmas hymns were in Latin and date from 4th century Rome. Another famous hymn was written in 760 by Comas of Jerusalem for the Greek Orthodox Church, and it was soon after this that composers across Europe started writing Christmas carols, too. Unfortunately, they were still written in Latin and were not very popular as most people couldn’t understand the language. By the 13th century, few people were still interested in celebrating Christmas.

But things were already afoot to change that . . .

In 13th century France, Germany and Italy, a tradition of Christmas carols in regional languages became popular, under the influence of St Francis of Assisi who made the birth of Christ into a live theatrical event. The first carols in English appeared in 1426 in a work of twenty-five Caroles of Cristemas by Shropshire chaplain, John Awdlay. These were possibly sung by groups of wassailers or minstrels as they went from door to door.

Many popular carols of today originate from a collection first published in 1582, again in Latin. Amongst them are Christ was born on Christmas Day and O come all ye Faithful, the latter appearing in its present form in the mid-18th century (though the words possibly originated in the 13th).

During the strict Puritanical rule of Cromwell in 1647, Christmas celebrations became almost non-existent, those who still continued to enjoy them doing so in secret and risking severe punishment if they were caught. Puritans not only disapproved of general merriment, they did not believe in religious songs. Their strict ban on such things not only affected Christmas in England, but in some other English-speaking areas too (as in the Massachusetts Bay Colony).

Public notice from 1656 in Boston regarding the celebrations of Christmas. Public Domain.

It was two hundred years before Christmas recovered from this setback. In 1822, the English MP and amateur historian, David Gilbert, published a collection of old carols. Eleven years later, William Sandys published a volume of tunes still sung today, including The First Nowel (the Angel Did say), and Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

One interesting carol originally from the 17th century but later republished in 1833 by William Sandys, is I Saw Three Ships (come sailing in.)

I like the catchy tune of this carol although the lyrics are open to interpretation. In the carol the ships are sailing into Bethlehem – which is highly improbable as the nearest water (the Dead Sea) is 20 miles/32 km away. One interpretation is that the three ships refer to the ships that carried the relics of the three kings to the cathedral in Cologne in the 12th century. Another suggestion is that the ships are actually the camels used by the Magi, as camels are frequently referred to as ‘ships of the desert’. Other interpretations exist, too.

I like a few versions of this carol but I picked this one because I love the Celtic music and of course, the lovely voice of Orla Fallon (of Celtic Woman). It was uploaded to YouTube by iscrazy4horses:

In the 1840s, Christmas in England began to take on a completely new feel. This was due, firstly, to the intervention of Queen Victoria and her new German husband, Prince Albert.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1854. Photographer Roger Fenta. royalcollection.org.uk  Public Domain

Not only were traditions from the continent adopted, new music books were published to widen the appeal of carols. These carols included Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The First Noel, Good King Wenceslas and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (the latter a New England carol).

Here’s a fun version of Good King Wenceslas sung by Irish Rovers. It was uploaded to YouTube by BrothersCharles.

This is what the story of King Wenceslas is actually about for anyone who doesn’t know. I’ve quoted it directly from Wikipedia:

Good King Wenceslas  is a popular Christmas carol that tells a story of a Bohemian  king going on a journey and braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (December 26, the day after Christmas). During the journey, his page is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, but is enabled to continue by following the king’s footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus 1, Duke of Bohemia…

Good King Wenceslas from a 1879 book by Henry Ramsden Bramley. From an engraving by the Brothers Grimm. Public Domain.  

The second reason for the increased enthusiasm for Christmas in the 1840s  was because these new changes were taken on board by a young writer called Charles Dickens.

Charles Dickens in 1842, the year before the publication of A Christmas Carol. Author: Francis Alexander. Public Domain

In 1843 he published A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. Date 1843/2008. Photographer: Heritage Auctions Inc, Dallas, Texas. Public Domain

In the book, readers ‘see’ the reality of grim Christmases of the past compared to the festive, music-filled Christmases that had now become the norm.

Meanwhile . . . in Austria in 1818, the beautiful carol, Silent Night (Stille Nacht), was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr.

The English translation of Silent Night was published in 1859 by episcopal priest John Freeman Young (then serving at Trinity Church in New York). It has become the favourite carol of many people.

Christmases of the 20th and 21st centuries have continued to extend the Victorian Christmas as a festive, secular celebration, obsessed with tradition. The singing of carols was popularised still further in 1961 when the Oxford University Press published one of the most popular carol books in the English-speaking world: Carols for Choirs.

Many more Christmas songs have become popular over the last century, most of them secular ones. One of the most well-known and well-loved songs is probably White Christmas, described by Wikipedia as ‘a 1942 Irving Berlin song reminiscing about an old-fashioned Christmas setting’.

Christmas songs have become ‘big business’ nowadays and competition for top places in the charts is the norm. This video is of the song that topped the UK charts at Christmas for many years. It’s Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody, uploaded by Andrew MacLachlan. Not exactly a Christmas Carol . . .

We’ve come a long way from the austere, Latin hymns of early Christian times. Yet traditional carols from over the past few hundred years can still be heard over the holiday period around stores and markets in towns, and in restaurant and café – and we all love to sing along (well, most of us do!). Many carols have been given an upbeat arrangement, which – like everything in life – some people like and others don’t. We rarely see carol singers at the door nowadays (another thing people either loved or hated) but Carol Services in churches still take place, despite poor attendance at some.

All in all, to me, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without these wonderful old carols.


1. http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/carols_history.shtml
2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml
3. http://musiced.about.com/od/christmasnewyeararticles/a/carols.htm
4. The Long, Strange History of Christmas Carols:       http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/assessment/2011/11/the_long_strange_history_of_christmas_carols.html
5. Various Wikipedia sites on individual carols and people mentioned in the post.


The Holly and the Ivy … and a Little Sprig of Mistletoe

Traditional Christmas card with holly and mistletoe. Date circa 1880s. Author: Shirley Wynne. Public Domain

Over the last couple of years I’ve written a number of posts about Christmas traditions in the U.K. I’ve done posts about Christmas trees, Yule logs, Boxing Day and Wassailing. I’ve also written about the Winter Solstice celebrations and Christmas markets. So this year, my first ‘Christmassy’ post is about the use of greenery – other than the Christmas tree.

Evergreens such as holly, ivy, mistletoe, laurel, fir and yew have been used in Northern Europe since pre-Christian times to celebrate the winter solstice (December 21). Staying green in the middle of winter, and not dying like most other plants, meant that evergreens symbolised eternal life. Hanging greenery in the home would ensure that new vegetation would return with the coming spring, as well as warding off evil spirits.

Greenery was also used in Rome for Saturnalia, the mid-winter celebration in honour of the god, Saturn. Romans decorated their houses with greenery, lit candles and enjoyed feasting and exchanging gifts with family and friends.

As Christianity spread, pagan cultures continued many of their midwinter practices, despite the disapproval of the Christian Church. Eventually, by 1600, the use of greenery became accepted in churches, though it took on a Christian perspective.

Holly is perhaps the most popular and well-known of the Christmas evergreens. Its prickly leaves symbolise the crown of thorns worn by Christ at His crucifixion and the bright red berries symbolise his drops of blood. In Scandinavia, holly is known as Christ Thorn.

European holly (Ilex aqufolium) leaves and fruit. Author Jurgen Howaldt. Creative Commons

In early days, holly was believed to be a fertility symbol as well as having magical powers and the ability to drive away witches, goblins and demons. In medieval England, when people were very afraid of such supernatural beings – which were thought to be particularly active at Christmas time – unmarried women would tie a sprig of holly to their beds to guard themselves against such things. In Germany, holly was considered to be a good luck charm against the hostile forces of nature.

In the 1640s, during the rule of Oliver Cromwell when Puritans banned Xmas, Christian country folk still continued to hang up bunches of ‘holy’ boughs of evergreens as a symbol of Christmas. This became the holly bough we know today.

We have two, smallish holly trees in our garden. One has variegated leaves and red berries, the other is not variegated and has yellow berries (Ilex aquifolium Bacciflavia). I always think of Christmas colours being red and green, so we don’t usually bring any of the yellow one indoors at Christmas, but it’s quite pretty all the same. Here are a few photos of the two trees:

Ivy is such a common evergreen. Various species grow in so many places – often to heights of 30 metres above the ground. The following  pictures show just three varieties of the hedera species.

And these are a few photos from around our village. The bird table is in our garden and the ivy growing up it started life in a basket of flowers sent by one of our children a few years ago.

Ivy needs to cling to something to support itself – which, in the Christian view, reminds people of the need to cling to God for support in their lives.

In Roman times ivy was the ancient symbol of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. Due to such association with pagan festivals, ivy was banned from the insides of churches and Christian homes, and used only to decorate the outsides. In Germany, a piece of ivy tied to the outside of a church was once thought to protect it from lightning.

Nowadays, ivy has become part of the traditional Christmas greenery, particularly as part of Christmas wreaths that many people hang outside their front doors.

Before I say a little bit about mistletoe, here’s a nice little version of the old hymn, The Holly and the Ivy that I found on YouTube. There are several versions of it but I liked the sweet little images in this one from MyVoxSongNurseryRhymes.

Mistletoe is one of the Christmas greens that everyone knows something about. Kissing beneath it has become the norm at get-togethers and parties. Some people avoid it like the plague, other people scheme and plan as to how they can entice someone they fancy to stand beneath it.

One little snippet I read regarding the origin of the name ‘mistletoe’ did make me laugh. Apparently, the name comes from two Anglo Saxon words: ‘mistel’ – meaning dung – and ‘tan’ – meaning stick. So next time you stand canoodling beneath the mistletoe, remember that you’re doing it beneath some ‘poo on a stick’. (Not my words!).


Mistletoe is a parasitic plant which attaches to and penetrates the trunk and branches of a tree or shrub by a structure called the haustorium, through which it draws water and minerals from the host.

European Mistletoe on an apple tree in Essex, England. Author: Chilepine. Public Domain
European Mistletoe (Viscum album) on an apple tree in Essex, England. Author: Chilepine. Public Domain
Mistletoe growing in a tree in the Wye Valley, UK, showing white berries in medium close-up. Author: Alexbrn. Public Domain

The name originally referred to the species Viscum album (European mistletoe) found in Great Britain and much of Europe. Separate species occur in Spain, Southern Portugal, North Africa, Australia and Asia.  Over the centuries the term has broadened to include other species of parasitic plants with similar habits found in other parts of the world. The Eastern Mistletoe is native to North America. Viscum album is not native to North America but it has been introduced in California.

Eastern mistletoe has smooth edged, oval, evergreen leaves in pairs along a woody stem with waxy, white berries in clusters of 2-6. The Eastern mistletoe of North America is similar but has shorter, broader leaves and longer clusters of 10 or more berries.

Eastern Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) in Northeast Texas. Author: Loadmaster (David R. Tribble). Creative Commons
Eastern Mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) in Northeast Texas. Author: Loadmaster (David R. Tribble). Creative Commons

Mistletoe is an attractive plant which provides contrast and interest when used alongside holly, ivy and other greenery, as in many Christmas wreaths and other arrangements of foliage.


The Romans treated it with great respect due to (what they saw as) its magical/mystical properties. Although all parts of the plant are poisonous, mistletoe’s healing powers have been recently recognised. It can be used in homeopathic recipes used to lower blood pressure and it may also have a role in cancer remedies. (The usual warning applies here: Don’t try this at home!)

Mistletoe was sacred to the people of ancient Britain and, as in ancient Rome, it was considered to have magical properties. In the Celtic language the name ‘mistletoe’ was ‘all heal’ as it was thought to cure diseases and render poisons harmless. It could also make humans and animals fertile and protect the house from ghosts and bring good luck.

Druid priests used it in their sacrificial ceremonies, and possibly, also in marriage ceremonies, and people meeting under a tree bearing mistletoe were forbidden to fight – even if they were enemies. The kissing custom is believed to have comes down to us from the Celts, so perhaps the friendship offered beneath the tree was the start of things.

Later on, hanging up the mistletoe in a house was originally done to ward off evil spirits, as was the case with most evergreens. The Victorians used it in doorways and hung it from ceilings and it eventually it became acceptable for the odd ‘mistletoe kiss’ to take place. Tradition has it that the more berries the mistletoe has, the more kisses are possible. With every kiss a berry was plucked until the berries were all gone and the kissing stopoed.


I’m adding this final picture simply because I like it!

The Mistletoe Seller by Adrien Barrere. Date: before 1932. Author: Adrien Barrere ((1874-1931). Public Domain.


1. Christmas Traditions and Customs:


2. Fashion Era: ChristmasCustoms -The Tradition of the Holly and the Ivy:


3. Woodland Trust:


4. Wikipedia: