Have you ever wondered about the history of Christmas carols? They have a long history, and a version of them has been sung in Europe for thousands of years.
Of course, the earliest version of these carols wasn’t actually caroling at all, but they were pagan songs that the people would sing during the Winter Solstice.
They would normally do these festivals while they were dancing in stone circles. Many scientists believe that Stonehenge is probably one of the earlier evidence of such practices.
Interestingly enough, these pagan rituals would usually take place on the 22nd of December. Moreover, the word “carol” originally meant either “dance” or “song of praise and joy”!
Caroling and Christians
Originally, songs for caroling were not just written during Christmas time. They were written for every part of the year, but now the practice only continues during the holiday season.
The earliest time that Christians started to use caroling as part of their worship practices would probably have to be around A.D. 129.
That was the year that a Roman Bishop declared that he thought a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be included in one of Rome’s Christmas services.
Just over six centuries later, a noted theologian called Comas of Jerusalem wrote a Christmas hymn for the Greek Orthodox Church in 760.
He was probably inspired by the Latin liturgies that were sung in churches at that time. Comas’ worship songs soon proved to be popular, and soon carols were composed by others as well.
Caroling and Christmas – A Brief Decline
Even though they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, in Comas’ case it did not seem to work.
Although many new composers took his lead and started writing their songs, these new Christmas worship songs proved to be very unpopular because they were writing in the confusing language of Latin.
Needless to say, a lot of early Christians lost interest in celebrating Christmas all together for several centuries.
The Middle Ages saw a decline in Christmas worship until St. Francis of Assisi came along with an interesting decision in 1223.
St. Francis of Assisi – The Nativity Plays
This was the year that St. Francis started the Nativity Plays in Italy. He would enlist people to sing songs called “canticles”, which told the story of the birth of Christ during these plays.
St. Francis would occasionally insist that the songs in these plays be presented in Latin.
However, most of the time he wanted them to be in a language that spectators could fully understand. He had a desire for people to join in!
These new carols were so successful they would eventually be spread to Germany, Spain, France and throughout Europe.
Earliest Christmas Carols
The earliest surviving Christmas carol was written in the style of St. Francis was composed around 1410. Unfortunately, there are only small fragments of it that remain.
It discussed Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus and the various things that happen to them.
Christmas carols from this time are interesting in that they share some similarities with the Elizabethan period.
In both cases, these carols are not meant to be true stories, but they are more meant for entertainment.
They communicated some central truth about Christianity and they were generally sung at home and not even in church!
Traveling minstrels would change the wording to these songs based on where they were. “I Saw Three Ships” is one example of a song that has been changed repeatedly.
1) The Puritans and Oliver Cromwell
Unfortunately, celebrating Christmas with the singing of carols was stopped after the Puritans came to power in 1640.
Both this group and Oliver Cromwell (who, incidentally, briefly abolished the British monarchy) believed that Christians should treat Christmas in a very solemn fashion. However, people still engaged in secret carol singing.
2) Christmas Carol Traditions in Victorian Times
Until Victorian times, most of the carols were unsung.
This would change for the better when William Sandys and Davis Gilbert went to rural England and gathered up all of the Christmas music to put it together later.
3) The Waits
It would take a while before carol singing in public would become popular. Until that time, there was a delightful group of people called “Waits.”
These were groups of people that were led by important members of the community.
This is because these leaders had the only power to take money from the public. If a normal person did that, they might be charged as a beggar!
The only reason they were called “Waits” is that they would only do their caroling on Christmas Eve.
During this period, orchestras and choirs were being set up in many cities throughout England. New carols such as “Good King Wenceslas” were written during this period as well.
5) Carols by Candlelight
This period was also the beginning of the “Carols by Candlelight” services. This is a good way to get in the Christmas spirit and these types of services are still popular today!
Also, keep in mind that Nine Lessons and Carols is still the most famous carol service in the world.
Learn More With the Help of Video
Main Points About the origin of Christmas Carols
- The Christmas season is not considered complete without the Christmas carols. In the 14th century, carols popularly became religious songs.
- For over a thousand years ago, the singing of carols started, but the carols were not Christmas carols neither were they religious.
- History has it that carol was not a Christian practice, it was a pagan practice for the Winter Solstice.
- Carol has French and Anglo-Norman origin. It is translated to mean a joyful or praise dance song accompanied by singing.
- It is written and sang for different seasons, but it has survived over the years for singing during the Christmas season.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About the origin of Christmas Carols
One of the most famous Christmas carols is probably Silent Night, written in Austria in 1818.
It says both that it was written by a priest called FR. Joseph Mohr in 1816. The text was added two years later by his teacher friend Franz Xaver Gruber.
The text is said to be from a poem that Joseph remembered, and Franz being the organist having to come up with a melody for guitar.
Word Cloud for the origin of Christmas Carols
The following is a collection of the most used terms in this article on the origin of Christmas Carols. This should help in recalling related terms as used in this article at a later stage for you.