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.