Christmas is celebrated by more than two billion people around the world in many different ways, but one foundational Christmas tradition is caroling. While singing Christmas carols is a common custom today, it has a history that many may not know.
What exactly is a carol? The Concise Oxford Dictionary states that it is a “joyous song, human or of birds, a Christmas hymn.” Other sources, such as the Oxford Companion to Music by P.A. Sholes, define it as “a religious seasonal song, of joyful character, in the vernacular and sung by the common people.” Familiar carols warm our hearts and give us a sense of wonder while singing at family gatherings or in church services. Many are simple folk songs learned in childhood, like Away in a Manger and O Little Town of Bethlehem. Christmas pageants feature choirs of children singing carols about Christ’s birth. We can reminisce about programs that we, our children, and our grandchildren participated in that captured the awe and wonder of the Holy Birth.
From ancient times, Europeans danced to carols with some sort of lively music. The word carol derives from the French word carole, which was a procession of dancers and singers. The Greek word choros indicated a dance performed by music played on the flute. A carol is a song of praise and joy. While carols were also sung at family celebrations and other holidays throughout the year, as time passed, carol singing became most associated with the Christmas holiday.
As the carol developed, the compositional form had two parts, the burden and the stanza. The stanza was considered the verse and the burden the refrain. Many were in Latin and were written on manuscripts. According to The English Carol by Erik Routley, in England popular folk songs and ballads influenced carols of the day.
St. Francis of Assisi, in the early 13th century, provided popular songs to the common people that were in the vernacular languages. The tradition of Nativity scenes and plays that people could experience in their own languages spread throughout Europe. These songs are believed to have become the first Christmas carols.
Carols were performed during intermissions of performances called “mystery plays” during the 14th century. The purpose of the plays was to teach the public lessons from the Bible. Popular carols became an important part of the plays and began to be heard in the streets. Street caroling was similar to the tradition we have today of carolers going door to door or gathering publicly to sing and celebrate the season.
The first printed carol book was produced in 1521, and in 1562 Thomas Tyndale published a set of carols that was distributed all over England. Many people were able to read them and familiarize themselves with Christmas music. The term carol in England referred to a lyrical poem about Christmas, Easter, and other holidays in the Christian calendar. Over time, carols were written about Christmas more than any other Christian holiday, which linked them almost exclusively with this season.
Many carols sung today were composed in the early 20th century. One such example is the famous Carol of the Bells (1904). Prominent musicologist Ralph Vaughan Williams and others conducted research about the history of Christmas carols, which they used to match words to tunes. They also published The Oxford Book of Carols, which became popular across Britain. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was created for services at King’s College in Cambridge, England, in 1918. First broadcast in 1928 by the BBC, it is a tradition that is still practiced today in churches across the world.
Caroling remains a vital part of celebrating Christmas. O Holy Night by Adolphe Adam is a well-known French carol based on the poem Minuit, Chretiens (Midnight, Christians) by Placide Cappeau. It reflects on humanity’s redemption in the birth of Jesus.
O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth;
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn;
Fall on your knees, O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born!
O night, O holy night, O night divine!
This French carol captures the good news of Christ’s birth. His appearance brought hope and joy to a world that lay “in sin and error pining.” The stars shone brightly, and the angels sang to announce to the world His birth. “When the right time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman, God sent him to buy freedom for us so that he could adopt us as his very own children” (Galatians 4:4-5). The carol directs followers to “fall on our knees” in heartfelt gratitude for the immeasurable gift of love sent to redeem a fallen world.
Another familiar carol, Silent Night by Franz Gruber, was composed in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria with lyrics by Joseph Mohr. It is believed to be the best-known carol in the world.
Silent night, holy night! All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing ‘Alleluia!’
Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born.
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus Lord at Thy birth.
The silence of this night was reflected in the moment of peace that came over Bethlehem when Christ was born. Psalm 46:10 states, “Be silent and know that I am God! I will be honored by every nation. I will be honored throughout the world.”
There are many lively secular carols as well as religious, such as Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls, The Christmas Song, I’ll be Home for Christmas, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and children’s songs about Santa Claus. Popular singers such as Dolly Parton and Carrie Underwood have just come out with Christmas albums this year. These carols are heard on the radio, in malls, online, and in homes far and wide, adding to the gaiety of the season. Many of these pop songs and artists are heard on Christmas at the Rockefeller Center, a popular event in New York City, when the huge tree is lit.
In Columbia, there are many opportunities to hear the carols of the season, although this year may look a little different for some of these events. The Governor’s Carolighting, which takes place the Sunday after Thanksgiving, has been a tradition for more than 50 years. The governor has a Christmas message and choirs, handbells, and bands play, sing, and ring in the holiday season. Shandon Baptist Church used to perform its “Singing Christmas Tree,” a tree 30 feet tall composed of 100 singers, all singing carols to celebrate the season. A 30-piece orchestra and dancers also added to the performance. First Baptist Church has the annual Columbia Christmas Pageant. The pageant, which includes secular traditions as well as religious, has dancing, singing, an orchestra, lights, and special effects telling the story of Jesus’ birth. Both events have been held for around 30 years in our community. Other churches have Lessons and Carols and concerts featuring songs and carols sung by choirs and soloists.
Whatever your tradition at Christmas, while you sing the familiar carols of the season, reflect on the words and the deeper meaning behind them. It is only when we sing with our hearts involved that we truly make music meaningful and significant in our lives.