What is the History of Christmas Carols?

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The History of Carolling During The Christmas Season

Christmas is a word that can immediately invoke a feeling of happiness, celebration and joy inside you. And Christmas carols are an excellent way to express this feeling of excitement for the holy event.

Carols are a huge part of our festive season every year. But, what is the history of Christmas carols? And, where did this iconic tradition come from?

What are Christmas Carols?

There are two assumptions about the word “carol.”

 According to the first, it comes from an ancient Greek word “choros,” meaning dancing in a circle.

The other view is that it originated from the French word “Carole,” which means a song to accompany dancing.

Christmas carols constitute a large part of a broader term called ‘Christmas music’, which includes music on a variety of topics e.g., religious and non-religious and music generally heard near and during the Christmas season. Over the years, the word carol became limited and specified for Christmas songs only.

Christmas carols are referred to as individual songs or hymns that are sung during the Christmas season. These songs are about the birth of Jesus and the events of his life. Sometimes these songs are accompanied by dances or religious dramas.

So, what is the history of Christmas carols?

The History of Christmas Carols

The history of Christmas carols began thousands of years ago when carols were sung in Europe. But, they were not Christmas carols at that time. Songs were sung in the winter celebrations, and people danced around circles made of stones.

Carols were written and sung in all the four seasons, but gradually this activity became designated to the event of Christmas.

The early Christians evolved these carols to Christmas songs. A Roman Bishop in 129 specified a song “Angel’s Hymn” to be sung at Christmas service in Rome. The next famous Christmas Hymn appeared in 760 by the Comas of Jerusalem sung at the Greek Orthodox Church.

At that time, these Hymns could not become very popular as they were in Latin, and many people who could not understand this did not take an interest in them.

In 1223 another vital progress took place when St. Francis of Assisi started Nativity Plays in Italy. These plays recreated the story of Jesus’ birth, and songs were also sung in these plays, which are basically what we call Christmas carols today.

These carols were not only in Latin but in all languages so that everyone could understand them. As a result, these carols spread to Germany, France, Spain, and other European countries.

Around the 1640s, the Puritans almost stopped Christmas celebrations and Christmas carols in England. However, carol singing survived in a way that people kept singing secretly.

In the Victorian times, two men William Sandays and Davis Gilbert gathered a lot of traditional Christmas music by travelling through different villages of England.

Then came a time when official carol singers “Waits” became popular. Many orchestras and choirs also established at this time. Some carol services started singing carols in the streets.

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Christmas Carolling

Singing carols in streets or public places is called Christmas carolling or carol singing. It is a tradition passed through the generations. During the Middle Ages, there was one custom in Great Britain that beggars used to look for food or money while singing holy songs wandering in the streets.

Even today, people still do carol singing in the streets and go from door to door to collect donations for charity. Although there is no compulsion of time traditionally carols are sung from St. Thomas’ day, i.e., 21 December till the morning of Christmas day.

Some churches also organize carolling. It could be an enjoyable experience singing carols with your friend to feel the warmth and happiness of this holy occasion.

Christmas Carols and Christmas Songs

Although both the terms are very much used for the same kind of singing and considered the same, being more specific Christmas carols are religious and a festive song, whereas Christmas songs, may be secular.

Traditional Christmas Songs

Some Christmas carols are regional, i.e., countries may have their popular carols and songs, while some are equally popular all over the Christian community. Jesus Refulsit Omnium is referred to as the oldest Christmas carol. It is a Latin hymn composed in the fourth century.

Christmas Carols List

We have compiled a list of the most popular carols of all time which you can enjoy singing with your family and friends. Or, just listen and celebrate the festivity of Christmas.

Little Town of Bethlehem

Rector Phillips Brooks, after his pilgrimage to the holy land of Bethlehem, got inspired by the views of the area from the hills of Palestine. This inspiration led to the text of this hymn. Three years later, in 1871 a melody for this hymn was also written for the children’s choir.

O Holy Night

In 1847, Placide Cappeau, who was a wine seller living in France, was asked by a local priest to write a festive poem for renovation celebrations of the church. Placide thought that it would feel more beautiful if the music was added with it, so he contacted his friend Adolphe Charles Adams. The text Adams wrote gives a picture of Jesus’ birth.·  

Silent Night

This carol was originally written in German, i.e., ‘Still Nacht.’ Franz Xaver composed it in 1818, and Joseph Mohr was the lyricist. It was translated into English in 1859. During the first world war, the German and English troops simultaneously sung this song in the Christmas of 1914.·  

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In the Bleak Mid-Winter

This carol is based upon a poem written by Christiana Rossetti in a time before 1872. It was written on a magazine request. After it appeared in The English Hymnal in 1906, it became famous as a carol.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Charles Wesley wrote the lyrics of this most famous carol, and Mendelssohn did the magic of music.

Come All Ye Faithful

There is an ambiguity about the writer of this carol. Two names are seen in the history behind it, i.e., King John IV of Portugal and John Francis Wade.

Come, O Come, Emmanuel

This song is sung at Advent and Christmas. Originally in Latin, it was translated in English in 1861.

Coventry Carol

The traces of this carol go back to 16th century England. Its lyric tells about the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ ordered by the cruel King Herod, who ordered to kill all the male children under the age of two in Bethlehem. He wanted to ensure that Jesus does not survive.

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

Massachusetts pastor Edmund Sears referring to the concepts of war and peace wrote this carol. Arthur Sullivan, in 1874 gave it an English melody.

Once in Royal David’s City

The words of this carol were written by a famous children’s poet Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander. Music was added to this carol a year later.

In Dulci Jubilo

This carol is a beautiful mixture of German and Latin text, and its origin dates back to the Middle Ages.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

This is one of the oldest Christmas songs which dates to the 16th century or maybe earlier.

Away in a Manger

This is a popular song, especially among children. It was written in the late 19th century. Its melody was initially composed by Jonathan E. Spilman in 1837 and later adapted by William Kirkpatrick in 1895.

Shepherd’s Pipe Carol

This carol is telling about the piping of a shepherd boy on the way he was going to see baby Jesus was composed by John Rutter when he just a schoolboy.

The Three Kings

Peter Cornelius, in 1857 wrote this beautiful carol in such a way that it can be sung by three male voices corresponding to the three kings. This job is wonderfully done by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Our Final Thoughts on the History of Christmas Carols

Christmas carols are a wonderful festive tradition, and the history of Christmas carols show just how far festive customs have changed and accustomed over the centuries. Carols, such as the ones in the list above, are sung by people celebrating Christmas all over the world.

During the Christmas holidays, make sure you don’t miss the fun and enjoyment of singing these beautiful carols with your loved ones. There are not many more activities more festive than singing carols, so cherish the moment and enjoy!

Related Christmas History Articles:

What is the History of Christmas Carols?

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