You really can’t beat a good ol’ christmas carol can you?! Whether it be the infectious ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ or something a little more tender with ‘Silent Night’ for thousands of years people across the world have sung and embraced as they sing Christmas carols throughout the holiday season. This emotional musical phenomena is so spectacular that we thought it would be great to delve into the deep rich history of some of our favourite Christmas carols and give you some fun facts to lace into your Christmas conversations this year!
What actually are carols?
Interestingly and perhaps contrary to popular belief, caroling certainly isn’t a Christmas creation and had been going on for thousands of years beforehand. Many actually believe caroling as we know it today to be more of a pagan tradition that (like christmas trees) was combined into western culture and are now a staple part of Christmas!
Originally, most carols were sung as celebrations of the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced around stone circles. This would usually take place on The Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) around 22nd December so the two were inevitably going to cross paths at some point! The word carol actually just means to dance or sing a song of praise and joy!
As Christmas and celebrating the birth of Jesus started to be celebrated at the same time as the solstice, the early Christians started singing Christian songs instead of pagan ones and the wonderful history of caroling begins!
The History Of Carols
The earliest report of a traditional Christmas carol as we know it, was called ‘Angels Hymn’ and reportedly dates back to 129 CE, but the original tune of the carol has been lost across thousands of years.
Many of these early carols of course were also lost overtime as few could read or write to document their tunes or words. However many were also lost as those that were documented were written in latin, a language inaccessible to most of the population at the time outside of monasteries. That was until 1223, when St. Francis of Assisi started his Nativity Plays in Italy - His creation of accessible caroling allowed new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
From here, the carols only continued to spread further and further, each changing slightly as they moved across countries, languages and peoples. Most carols from this time are very loosely based on the Christmas story and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. When the Puritans came to power in England in 1640s however, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped entirely. However, the carols survived as people still sang them in secret.
It then wasn’t until 1822 when William Sandys and Davis Gilbert published A Collection of Ancient Christmas Carols, with the tunes to which they were formerly sun in The West of England (Not the catchiest of titles in hindsight!)
Thanks to the carols being captured and documented properly, caroling only became more and more popular as many orchestras and choirs came together to celebrate the holiday season once more. Carols, such as 'Good King Wenceslas', ‘God Rest Your Merry, Gentlemen’ and ‘Silent Night’, were also written in the Victorian period and remain today. This also the time that caroling in the streets became popular as it still does today.
What are the meaning behind carols?
To finish off our history of Christmas carols, we thought we’d break down some old classics to actually discover some of their hidden meanings!
I Saw Three Ships
Like many carols, the tune itself was not designed as a Christmas song, and it was wandering minstrels who adapted and changed the lyrics as they went. The most popular version that is known today was first published in William Sandy’s 1822 collection (don’t make us say the title again!) and has continued to be a staple in many homes!
The 12 Days Of Christmas
This one’s a little controversial and should be taken with a pinch of salt but it is believed that as Catholicism was banned in both private and public in England between 1558 and 1829, many Catholics created secret carols and continued to worship in secret - the most famous supposedly being ‘The Twelve Days Of Christmas’!
The reason for this theory comes from the fact that 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' was written at the beginning of this time and some believe this song is a subtle nod to the secret symbols catholics would use to demonstrate their faith in secret
For example, the “true love” noted in the song acts as a metaphor for God and the various presents he has brought the world. The two doves being the old and new testaments, the three french hens being the Christian trinity or wise men, 'eight maids a milking' are the eight beatitudes, Jesus' teachings on happiness. 10 lords a leaping, are the 10 commandments and 12 drummers drumming being the 12 disciples of Jesus… Whether you believe it or not, it’s a great story!
This one has a lovely legend to accompany it! The words of 'Silent Night' were written by a Priest called Fr. Joseph Mohr in Mariapfarr, Austria, in 1816. The music was later added in 1818, by his school teacher friend Franz Xaver Gruber, for the Christmas service at St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria.
The original sheet music was actually written on guitar, not organ, which was very uncommon. The legend of the carol says that , Fr. Mohr wanted the carol to be sung by the children of the village at the midnight Christmas Eve service, as a surprise for their parents. But in the middle of their practicing, the organ broke and not a note would come from it! So the children had to practice over and over again to learn the carol only accompanied by a guitar. The supposedly became so good that the guitar wasn't even needed and the children put on a fantastic performance for their loved ones. Of course we all know the song and it remains one of the most recorded songs in the world to this day!
So there you have it! We hope you’re feeling brilliantly christmassy now and ready to take on the holidays by storm and have a few subtle facts and theories to slot into conversation the next time you hear a carol being sung!