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 countries.
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.