A Brief History of Christmas Carols

In 1818 on a fascinating Christmas Eve Silent Night was performed for the first time at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, Austria. Oh, yes! You have hummed the carol; probably on a lazy afternoon or while gripping cups of hot chocolate around a comfy warm fire or while stepping through snow stacks.

The story goes behind the one of the most popular Christmas carols is that Father Joseph Mohr penned the lyrics to “Silent Night” in 1816 at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr. After his transference to St Nicholas, he wanted to have an original song for the midnight Mass at his beloved church even though the organ of the church was broken. So on the Christmas Eve of 1818, Mohr walked three kilometers from his home in Oberndorf bei Salzburg to visit his friend Franz Xaver Gruber in the neighboring town of Arnsdorf bei Laufen to ask him to set his poem (Silent Night) to music. Franz Xaver Gruber composed the melody for Stille Nacht (Silent Night) in just a few hours and it became one of the most beloved Christmas Carols since then.

Silent Night is among the many other popular carols that you hear in almost every shopping malls, church and holiday parties in every holiday season and know all their words by heart. But what is the history behind this subset of Christmas Music in the first place?

The original meaning of “carol” is a circle dance with singing. It is believed that carols were first sung thousands of years ago in Europe. But they were not Christmas carols, they were Pagan songs sung for Winter Solstice Celebrations where they would sing and dance in a circle. Early Christians took over the Solstice celebrations and gave people Christian songs to sing. The first known Christmas hymns may be traced to Rome In 129 where a song called “Angel’s Hymn” was sung at a Christmas service. Corde natus ex Parentis by the Spanish poet Prudentiusis was among the famous hymns too. Around 8th century a Christmas hymn by Comas of Jerusalem for the Greek Orthodox Church became very popular and many poet all over Europe started to write Christmas carols. In 12th century a Persian monk called Adam of Saint Victor began to derive music from popular songs and introduced something closer to the traditional Christmas carol.

However, most of these hymns were written and sung in Latin which the normal people around Europe were unable to comprehend. Therefore, not many people liked them. This was changed by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 who introduced carols to his nativity plays and Christmas Mass in Italy. The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries in the 13th century with a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs in regional native languages.

Christmas carols in English first appeared in a 1426 work of John Awdlay who lists twenty five “caroles of Cristemas”, probably sung by groups of wassailers, who went from house to house and perform them. But most Carols from this time and the Elizabethan period were untrue stories, very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs and they were usually sung in homes rather than in churches. Singers or Minstrels started singing these carols from house to house and the words were changed for the local people wherever they were traveling. One of the popular carols among them was I Saw Three Ships.

Many Carols in the reign of Queen Elizabeth were printed in Piae Cantiones, a collection of late medieval Latin songs which was first published in 1582. However, around 1600, the Protestant Reformation gained prominence and many Christmas carols were discontinued or banned as they were inappropriate for the solemnity of the church. As the popularity of carols faded, many songs faded from memory and were largely lost. But some carols survived as people still sang them in secret. Carols remained mainly unsung until Victorian era. The publication of Christmas music books in the 19th century helped to reappear and regain the popularity of Carols. The invention of the radio in the early 1900s and the growth of voice broadcasts helped it as well. It is this period that gave rise to such favorites like Good King Wenceslas and It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. In 1928, Oxford University Press first published The Oxford Book of Carols  which was edited by the British composers Martin Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams, along with clergyman and author Percy Dearmer and it became a widely used source of carols in among choirs and church congregations in Britain and remains in print today.

Today carols are regularly sung at Christian religious services. Many Carol traditions were created and became popular. A modern form of the practice of caroling can be seen in Dial-A-Carol, an annual student-run service at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in which students take calls from people asking for a Christmas carol. The history of Carols is centuries old but as long as the spirit of Christ lives among us, the tradition of Carol will remain in our hearts.

Featured Image Nikiforos Lytras – Κάλαντα (Carols) (Wikimedia common)

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_carol

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