A History of Carols

APO’s Robin Lane explores the long and winding history of the ever-popular Christmas Carol.

Carols are an integral part of the festive period as much as boozy dense fruitcakes or decorating living spaces with foliage and fake fauna. It is hard to imagine Yuletide without its respective soundtrack. So how did we end up with these songs? When did they begin? Who is to blame?

Before Christmas was the main event for Europe, there were pagan celebrations around the Winter Solstice. These celebrations usually incorporated songs and dancing around stone circles and would take place across all four seasons. None of these songs have survived over time, which is a shame as Augustine’s description from the 5th Century of them being "most vain and filthy" makes it sound like they were quite fun.

The word carol itself means song or dance of praise, no surprise then that when the Christians sought the hostile takeover of this pagan ritual with Christmas they kept this tradition. The earliest documented Christmas Carol was suggested by a Roman bishop in 336AD as a suitable musical accompaniment for Christmas services; “in the Holy Night of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour, all shall solemnly sing the Angels' Hymn”. Quite the departure from the “filthy” pagans.

This solemnity continued for some time and Christmas carols failed to capture the public’s attention. In no small part down to the fact, they were all in Latin and no one understood the words or could sing along. Enter St. Francis of Assisi. He started his Nativity plays in Italy around 1223 and incorporated canticles that helped tell the story. While the choruses remained in Latin, he gave the people what they wanted and provided lyrics in their own language! By creating one of the first instances of improved accessibility, Christmas and its accompanying Carols started spreading throughout Europe.

A good example of this mixed language format can be heard in the earliest printed carol 'Boars Head Carol' from 1521.

These simpler, entertaining Carols were sung by travelling singers or minstrels. They didn’t necessarily stick to the gospel but they entertained their audience with these whimsical songs. One of the notable songs that is still in popular use is 'I Saw Three Ships', which travelling musicians would tweak and change to suit whichever town or village they were visiting. Singers would go from house to house performing these songs, it was bad luck not to provide them with food and drink as thanks, so payment was often made in the form of a figgy pudding.

The Puritans temporarily paused the fun in 16th Century England and Christmas Carols went underground, sung in clandestine gatherings. It took a long time for Christmas Carols and Christmas to recover from this interruption. Enter the Victorians. They went Christmas mad, not least due the social influencers of the time, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, making such a big deal of it all. In came the Christmas tree, the crackers, the cards and the presents. Although many of these were foreign imports from the continent, it was the British Empire and its reach that spread these traditions throughout the globe.

With this resurrection came the recovery of carols. They were still sung but were confined to the drinking houses, kept firmly outside the drawing rooms, and parlours of high society. A collection from William Sandys and Davis Gilbert finally provided a wider sharing of these traditional songs and soon they began to spread.

The carols popularity grew and of course, as with any rising fad, composers quickly jumped on the Christmas bandwagon. New orchestras across Europe were looking for original pieces to perform and churches needed clean songs to sing and appease their congregations. It is from this time in the 19th Century that most of the most beloved Carol’s were created.

One of the most notable from this period was the combination of a melody by Felix Mendelssohn and a hymn by Charles Wesley. The music by Mendelssohn was composed for the 400th anniversary of the printing press and he specified it should not be used for religious purposes. Wesley stipulated his hymn should be paired with a solemn accompaniment befitting its lofty subject matter. It’s not known whether organist William Hayman Cummings was aware of their request about how their work should be used but either way he ignored them and from this hybrid 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing', as we came to know it, was created. The ultimate cracker of a carol providing the perfect finale for any carol service or indeed an article about their history.

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