Most of us grew up singing Christmas carols, learning the lyrics to classics such as Jingle Bells or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, at a very young age. But believe it or not, carols have been sung for thousands of years and didn’t start for the sake of Christmas. They were sang pagans who were celebrating Winter Solstice. Carols were accompanies by celebrations and people dancing around stone circles. This is why the word carol is actually has Greek roots, originally pronounced choraulein, meaning “an ancient circle dance performed to flute music.”
Because the carols became a custom and tradition, early Christians decided to take over the celebrations rather than ban them, changing out the songs for more Christian ones. In AD 129, a Roman Bishop said that a song called ‘Angel’s Hymn’ should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Soon many composers all over Europe started to write carols. However, not many people liked them as they were all written and sung in Latin, a language that the normal people couldn’t understand. By the time of the Middles Ages (the 1200s), most people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas altogether.
St. Francis of Assisi changed this in 1223, when he started his Nativity Plays in Italy. The plays included songs or ‘canticles’ that told a story during the play. The songs were typically written in the people’s language which then gave rise to carol’s popularity again among the masses. The earliest carol that was actually written down came out in 1410. Only a very small fragment of it still exists in historic records. The carol was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem.
Most carols from this time and the Elizabethan period were untrue stories, very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung in homes rather than in churches. Traveling singers or Minstrels started singing these carols and the words were changed for the local people wherever they were traveling.
When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped. Puritans at that time disapproved as well of the celebration of Christmas, and did not close shop on that day, but continued to work through December 25. However, the carols survived as people still sang them in secret. Those caught singing Christmas carols could be fined five shillings for demonstrating Christmas spirit. Carols remained mainly unsung until Victorian times until 1660 when King Charles II restored the Stuarts to the throne. The public was once again able to practice the singing of Christmas carols.
Before carol singing in public became popular, there were sometimes official carol singers called ‘Waits’. These were bands of people led by important local leaders (such as council leaders) who had the only power in the towns and villages to take money from the public (If others did this, they were sometimes charged as beggars!). They were called ‘Waits’ because they only sang on Christmas Eve (This was sometimes known as ‘watchnight’ or ‘waitnight’ because of the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them.), when the Christmas celebrations began.
Also, at this time, many orchestras and choirs were being set up in the cities of England and people wanted Christmas songs to sing, so carols once again became popular. Many new carols such as ‘Good King Wenceslas’, were also written.
New carols services were created and became popular, as did the custom of singing carols in the streets. Both of these customs are still popular today and fortunately one can sing Christmas carols as much as they would like without being fined.
Jeff Bachmeier is owner of 977music.com, an online music and online radio station network providing live streaming Internet Radio channels with music from the 50’s thru Today. Users can also choose to create their own customized on demand playlist through their own social media profile. For more information please visit http://www.977music.com.