The intriguing history of a Christmas staple

A group of young carol singers.
A group of young carol singers. / SUR
  • Most people will know the words to at least one Christmas carol, even if they last sang them during secondary school morning assembly

  • Carols gained popularity when Francis of Assisi began producing nativity plays

Christmas is the season to deck our halls with boughs of holly and don our gay apparel, according to one popular Christmas carol, while others tell us that, unlike many festive traditions, man will live forever more because of Christmas day.

Many aspects of the stereotypical Dickensian Christmas have virtually disappeared over the years, including Yule logs, eggnog, ghost stories and the tradition of carol singing.

Although a great majority of us may never actually visit a church over the holiday season, most people will know the words to at least one Christmas carol, even if the last time they sang them was during secondary school morning assembly.

Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, although they were pagan songs usually sung during the Winter Solstice. The word 'carol' actually means to dance around a circle, or a song of praise and joy. Originally, they could be performed during all four seasons, although they would eventually only be associated with Christmas.

Early Christians replaced the pagan solstice celebrations with Christmas and Christian songs replaced the pagan ones.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, Christmas Prose was introduced to monasteries in Northern Europe and in the 12th century, a Parisian monk named Adam of St Victor began to derive music from popular songs, introducing something closer to what would become the traditional Christmas carol.

The Christmas carol started to gain popularity in 1223, when Francis of Assisi began producing his Nativity plays in Italy. These plays included songs that told the story of Christ's birth and these new carols spread to France, Germany, Spain and other European countries.

These early carols were seen as entertaining rather than religious. They were usually sung in homes or by travelling minstrels, but never in churches. The singing of carols in churches in England is thought to have first begun in Truro cathedral, Cornwall, on Christmas Eve in 1880.

Traditionally, carols were usually based on medieval chord patterns and it is this that gives them their uniquely characteristic musical sound. Some carols, like 'Good King Wenceslas' and 'The Holly and the Ivy', can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages and are among the oldest musical compositions still regularly sung.

Christmas carols in English first appeared in 1426 and many carols that have gained popularity today were first printed in 'Piae Cantiones', a collection of late Medieval Latin songs which was first published in 1582. Early forms of carols such as 'Christ Was Born on Christmas Day', 'Good Christian Men Rejoice' and 'Good King Wenceslas' can be found in this book.

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas tells a story of a Bohemian king who, braving harsh winter weather, embarked on a journey to give alms to a poor peasant on 26 December - The Feast of Stephen. English hymn writer, John Mason Neale, wrote the lyrics to the carol and it first appeared in 'Carols for Christmas Tide' in 1853. Neale's lyrics were set to the melody of a 13th-century Finnish carol called 'The Time is Near for Flowering', first published in 1582.

When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647, the celebration of Christmas was forbidden. The singing of such things as 'The Holly and the Ivy' would have landed one in serious trouble, for Cromwell wanted to cleanse the nation of its most decadent excesses. On the top of his list were Christmas and carol singing.

Victorian revival

The singing of carols did not become popular again until Victorian times, when William Sandys put together a selection of Christmas music collected from various villages in England.

The publication of numerous Christmas music books in the 19th century helped to widen the popular appeal of carols. 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' and 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' first appeared in William Sandys', 'Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern', in 1833.

Another significant contribution to the revival of carols in Victorian England was the publication of Henry Ramsden Bramley and Sir John Stainer's 'Christmas Carols, New and Old'. The first edition of 20 carols was released in 1867 and a second series of 22 carols followed in 1871. A third series in 1878 added another 28 songs, bringing the collection to a total 70 carols. The Bramley and Stainer editions, which included 'Once in Royal David's City' and 'The First Noel', were well received by the British public and the series was reprinted up until the 1950s.