38. Christmas Carols
The tradition of caroling and Christmas carols is believed to have
originated in England when wandering musicians would go from town to town and
visit castles and other homes of the rich to give impromptu performances. But
there also is the belief that singing carols at Christmas likely came from the
group of angels, shepherds and Wise Men who visited Jesus at his birth, because
they worshiped the holy child, sang and proclaim praises unto Him. And after
their visit, they continued their proclamations in the street.
The origin of the word carol however, is thought to come from the word
‘caroller,’ which is a French word that describes a circle dance with singers.
And from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, the carol was highly
popular as a dance song. The use of carols then evolved to festivals where they
were sung as processional songs and others were used as part of religious
mystery plays in Europe. Some traditional qualities of a carol was that the
words expressed should celebrate a topic that was seasonal, have verses and a
chorus arranged alternately and have music that was suitable for dancing.
Although many of the carols that are now popular at Christmas time are very old,
there are others from earlier times that didn’t survive. During the 17th century
when the Protestants, led by Oliver Cromwell were in power in England, many
Christmas caros were banned and consequently some were never heard again. The
Christmas carols that survived the Protestant Reformation period didn’t become
very popular again until the mid-19th century to the start of the 20th century.
Many of the Christmas carols that were banned, and early Christmas carols in
general, had lyrics that expressed joyous and merry themes instead of the
serious somber words found in church hymns. During the time when carols were
banned, some composers and musicians wrote non-religious songs that had highly
varied choral music, which they called carols, for Christmas. After Christmas
carols again became popular, many of those songs were re-arranged with new
Christian lyrics and used by the church.
Making changes to Christmas carols continues in a different way today with pop
artistes singing the carols to different tunes and melodies to give them a style
that characterizes the particular artiste. Having Christmas carols with tunes of
contemporary or popular music of today means that they are also more likely to
survive because younger listeners will be interested in hearing any music that
is done by their favorite or other popular singers.
The popularity of Christmas carols in the United States increased in the 19th
century, as it did in England, because many of the traditions related to
Christmas came to the United States from England. The United States and England
also have closely linked religious observances, which also accounts for the
popularity and similarity of Christmas carols that are enjoyed in both
Today, radio stations are the first to play Christmas carols, usually starting
toward mid-November, to signal the coming season. At the start of December when
the Christmas season official begins, mall stores and other retail
establishments will begin to pipe Christmas carols and songs through their
places of business.
The singing of carols at churches, schools, and by groups performing at malls
usually will be a common sight starting in early to mid-December. Carol singing
as a part of Nativity plays and concerts at churches and schools is usually in
full swing by mid-December as the Christmas season gets into high gear and the
countdown to Christmas Day begins.
Whether it’s the traditional tune or popular makeovers of Christmas carols that
you enjoy, listening to them is part of an old Christmas tradition. And any
version of a Christmas carol that is played will serve the purpose of putting
you in a festive mood for Christmas that you may even want to dance, just like
the music of original carols was meant to do.
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