You know its Christmas season when voices lifting in praise and worship fill churches, street corners and homes with haunting strains of some of the best loved Christmas carols of all time. There is something infinitely inspiring, uplifting and immensely rewarding about listening to (or singing) Christmas carols.
The traditional carol singing period lasts from St Thomas Day (December 21) till Christmas morning.
What does the word ‘carol’ mean?
Believed to be a derivative of a medieval word of French and Anglo-Norman origin, the word ‘carol’ broadly means ‘a dance or song of praise and joy’ and is often accompanied by singing.
Origin of carols
Much before they came to be intricately associated with Christmas, carols had been sung as pagan worship songs in Europe thousands of years ago. These were sung at the annual Winter Solstice celebrations and had people dancing around stone circles. The ancients used to write songs in celebration of all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing during the Winter Solstice (and then later at Christmas around much the same time) survived the passage of time.
The earliest carols
It was only when carols began to be sung in churches that they came to be specifically associated with Christmas. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, the Winter Solstice celebrations for Christmas with their heavy pagan overtones began to be replaced by Christian songs instead. In 129 AD, a song called ‘Angel’s Hymn’ was sung at a Christmas service in Rome on the orders of a Roman Bishop. Comas of Jerusalem penned one more famous early Christmas hymn in 760 AD for the Greek Orthodox Church. Other composers in Europe followed suit and soon carols began to appear on the scene.
Unfortunately, since they were mostly written and sung in Latin, not many people could understand them.
It was St. Francis of Assisi who turned things around. In 1223, he started his famous Nativity Plays in Italy which had the actors singing songs or ‘canticles’ that described the scenes unfolding during the plays. These songs were in a language that the common people could understand and participate in enthusiastically, even though some of the choruses were in Latin. As a result, the popularity of carols rapidly spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
English Christmas carols
English Christmas carols first find mention in 1426 in a publication of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain. In this, he lists no less than 25 “caroles of Cristemas”, that were probably sung by groups of ‘wassailers’, who went singing from house to house.
The earliest English carol is believed to have been written sometime in 1410. It centred around Mary and Jesus and their interaction with different people in Bethlehem.
Celebration of Christmas and the singing of carols stopped abruptly when the Puritans came to power in England in 1647. However, people continued to sing carols in secret and they survived the ban.
Carol singing goes public
Caroling as we know it today or singing carols in public was begun by people who were designated official carol singers called ‘Waits’. These small groups were usually led by local leaders. The reason they were called ‘waits’ was because they only sang on Christmas Eve. Christmas Eve was also known as ‘watchnight’ or ‘waitnight’ and hence the name.
It was during the Victorian era that many orchestras and choirs came up in different parts of England, reflecting the popular demand of the people who wanted Christmas songs to sing. And, so, carols once again came to the forefront, this time to stay.
Carol services were created and carolling became an ingrained Christmas ritual.
The Most Famous Carol Service
Arguably the most famous carol service of all, the service of Nine Lessons and Carols takes place in King’s College in Cambridge, UK. This service is held on Christmas Eve and BBC Radio broadcasts it live all over the world. The carol service always begins traditionally with single choir rendition of the much-loved carol ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. The Service was first performed in 1918 as a way of the college celebrating the end of the First World War.
The best loved Christmas carol of all times
‘White Christmas’ by Irving Berlin is said to be the best loved carol of all time. It is estimated to have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide.
What makes Christmas carols so loved?
It is the medieval chord patterns on which most carols are based that imparts the unique musical sounds to Christmas carols. That and the unforgettable lyrics have given us some of memorable carols.
The world’s favourite Christmas carols
Among the world’s best loved carols are Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark The Herald Angels Sing, Joy To The World, What Child is This, It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, We Three Kings, Once in Royal David’s City, The First Noel, We Three Kings, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and O Little Town of Bethlehem.