Over the centuries Christmas has inspired countless songs. Which of the many pieces of vocal music written for Christmas qualify as true Christmas carols? Most writers assume Christmas carols to be those songs about Christmas whose tune and lyrics are widely known and whose popularity is maintained primarily through folk traditions rather than COMMERCIAL promotions. By this definition, the fine Christmas works written by classical composers are not true Christmas carols, since they are musically quite complex and known to relatively small numbers of people. The fact that people sing carols for enjoyment and entertainment also figures in their definition. This criterion might exclude a number of lesser-known church hymns, since people usually sing them only during church services. In addition, most carols take as their subject matter the legends, customs, or religious celebration of Christmas. Therefore, some people would not include popular songs such as “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” or even the hit song “WHITE CHRISTMAS” in a collection of carols, since these songs achieved popularity through commercial mechanisms and do not address traditional Christmas themes or religious celebration. Others might quarrel with these criteria, arguing that the subject matter of these songs and the manner in which they achieved popularity simply reflect the commercial interests and cultural outlook of the twentieth century.
Why are these traditional Christmas songs called “carols,” anyway? Some scholars trace the English word “carol” all the way back to the ancient Greek word coros. In ancient Greek drama the coros, or “chorus,” appeared from time to time during the play singing commentaries on the plot and often dancing as well. By the late Middle Ages, the word “carol” had come to mean singing and dancing in a circle, as children do when singing “Ring Around the Rosy.” In the Middle Ages people caroled on many different occasions. By the sixteenth century, however, this musical genre had acquired a special association with the CHRISTMAS SEASON, while its earlier association with dance was fading away. Already a large number of Christmas carols circulated throughout Europe. A number of these, such as the English “I Saw Three Ships” and the German “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” are still sung today.
Earliest Christmas Songs
The earliest recorded Christmas carol was the one that the ANGELS sang to the SHEPHERDS when announcing JESUS’ birth (see GOSPEL ACCORDING TO LUKE):
Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!
Latin hymn writers provided the first Christmas songs sung by the early Christians. “Veni, redemptor gentium” (Redeemer of the Nations Come), written by St. Ambrose, archbishop of Milan (339-397), is the earliest surviving example of these works. Others include “A Solis Ortus Cardine” (From East to West, From Shore to Shore) by Sedulius (fifth century) and works by the Spanish poet Prudentius (348-after 405). These early Christmas hymns were written by monks or other religious scholars for use in worship. They tend to approach Christmas from a theological perspective and emphasize the role of the Nativity in humankind’s salvation.
Medieval Christmas Carols
In the late Middle Ages a new spirit slowly infused the poetry and songs written about Christmas. Artists began to describe the people and events of the Nativity and react to them in emotional terms. Some credit St. Francis of Assisi (1181 or 1182-1226) with instilling a new spirit of simplicity and joy in worship, thereby indirectly bringing about these changes (see also NATIVITY SCENE). Some even believe that he wrote Christmas carols. If he did, none have survived. The work of one of his followers, the Franciscan mystic Jacapone da Todi (1228-1306), exemplifies the impact of these new attitudes towards the Nativity. His songs depict the Christmas miracle in homely images, such as that of the Virgin cradling and nursing her child. Whereas earlier church hymns had been written in Latin, a language known only by scholars, da Todi composed joyful songs in Italian so that ordinary people could sing them. These innovations gave birth to the Christmas carol as we know it.
The Golden Age
The creativity unleashed in the late Middle Ages revealed itself in an outpouring of Christmas songs over the next several centuries. By the fourteenth century Christmas carols in vernacular languages were sprouting up all over EUROPE. In GERMANY carol writers blossomed under the liberating influence of mystics like Meister Eckehart (1260?-1327). Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century German carol writers bequeathed us such treasures as “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” “In Dulci Jubilo” (Good Christian Men Rejoice), and “Joseph, Lieber Joseph Mein.”
In late medieval ENGLAND the mystery or miracle plays performed around Christmas time inspired the composition of a number of carols (see also NATIVITY PLAY). “The Coventry Carol,” for example, accompanied the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, a Christmas play produced annually by that guild. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Christmas carols and verses flowed from the pens of English writers. This epoch gave birth to such well-loved songs as “The First Nowell” (see also NOEL) and “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.” In fact, the earliest surviving collection of English Christmas carols dates from this period and bears the following inscription:
I pray you, sirrus, boothe moore and lase,
Sing these caroles in Cristëmas [Miles, 1992,27].
These English carols played a central role in another English Christmas custom, wassailing (see WASSAIL). Indeed, a number of traditional English and Welsh carols treat secular Christmas customs, such as feasting, drinking, and seasonal decorations. Examples include “The Boar’s Head Carol,” first printed in 1521, and others more difficult to assign dates to, such as “The Holly and the Ivy,” “Deck the Halls,” and various wassailing songs (see also BOAR’S HEAD). In medieval and Renaissance England people viewed merrymaking as an integral part of the celebration of the Nativity. As one English carol writer put it:
Make we myrth
For Christes byrth [Pimlott, 1978,16].
Further south in FRANCE, carol writing blossomed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although a number of French Christmas carols, or noëls, appeared in the fifteenth century, the real surge in the composition and spread of these songs occurred in the following century. Many songwriters of this era placed the singer in the position of one of the original pilgrims to BETHLEHEM. The songs describe the singer’s journey and the people met along the way, who typically turn out to be from neighboring villages. The singer identifies the other pilgrims by their behavior and appearance, which usually exemplifies the negative reputation that their town has acquired in the eyes of its neighbors. By contrast, the seventeenth-century Provençal carol, “Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella,” sweetly urges villagers to pay reverence to the sleeping Christ child. Perhaps its gentler tone contributes to the song’s continuing appeal.
In SPAIN carol writing flourished in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Unlike the satirical carols popular in France, these Spanish carols, or villancicos, convey both tenderness and reverence. The following verses from an old Spanish carol exemplify these sentiments:
In a porch, full of cobwebs
Between the mule and the ox
The Savior of souls is born...
In the porch at Bethlehem
Are star, sun, and moon
The Virgin and St. Joseph
And the Child who lies in the cradle.
In Bethlehem they touch fire From the porch the flame issues It is a star of heaven Which has fallen into the straw....
To the new-born child all bring a gift
I am little and have nothing
I bring him my heart [Miles, 1992, 66-67].
The Reformation and Beyond
The change in religious beliefs and attitudes associated with the Reformation checked the creation of carols in many areas of northern Europe, especially Britain. In England the PURITANS’rise to power in the mid-seventeenth century corresponded with a drop-off in the writing of carols. Nevertheless, the common people continued to sing the old carols and so kept many of them alive. Sterner religious authorities gained control in Scotland. In the late sixteenth century these authorities forbade many old Christmas pastimes altogether, including carol singing. In Germany the Reformation also inhibited carol writers, although at the same time it inspired the creation of some fine Christmas hymns. In France the Reformation had little effect on Christmas music. Instead, the change of attitudes that ac-companied the revolution of 1789 hushed the singing of noëls and discouraged their composition.
The spirit of the Reformation infused many of the Christmas songs written in the centuries that followed with the flavor of church hymns. Indeed, many of the seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nine-teenth-century carols familiar to us today were written expressly for church use or by members of the clergy. Examples include “Joy to the World,” written by the famous English hymn writer Isaac Watts in 1692, and “O Come All Ye Faithful” penned by another religious Englishman, John Francis Wade, in 1742. An anonymous French composer gave us “Angels We Have Heard on High” in the mid-eighteenth century. Fellow Frenchman Adolphe Charles Adam of-fered “O Holy Night” in the following century. English hymn writer James Montgomery wrote the words to “Angels from the Realms of Glory” in 1816, which were later paired with a tune composed by Henry Smart.
In the early 1800s an Austrian priest and his organist composed “Silent Night.” Its enduring popularity notwithstanding, “Silent Night” came into the world as the slap-dash creation of a single evening: Christmas Eve, 1818. Finding himself without a functioning organ for the Christmas Eve service, Father Josef Mohr scribbled down some verse and asked his organist Franz Gruber to quickly score it for voices so that the choir could sing it for that evening’s MIDNIGHT MASS. The song circulated for many years among Austrian folk singers and eventually acquired international popularity before its authorship was traced back to Mohr and Gruber.
The Nineteenth-Century Revival
The Christmas carol appeared to be dying out in early nineteenth-century England. Observers of English folk customs lamented that only a scattered handful of old people knew and sang the traditional songs. By mid-century the institution of the WAITS (bands of nighttime carolers) was collapsing. English folklorists predicted the imminent demise of the Christmas carol. These alarm bells inspired the collection and publication of several volumes of English Christmas carols in the early to mid-nineteenth century. The publication of these collections coincided with the budding Victorian interest in the celebration of Christmas (see CHRISTMAS IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND). Soon the flagging tradition of the Christmas carol gained new momentum among the middle classes. By the 1870s churches began to incorporate these almost forgotten Christmas songs into their holiday services. In 1880 an Anglican bishop first devised the Ceremony of Nine Lessons and Carols, a special Christmas service blending Bible readings with carol singing.
The nineteenth century not only hosted a revival of the Christmas carol in Europe, but also witnessed a burst of new interest in the genre in the United States. Americans were just beginning to accept Christmas as a public and religious holiday in the mid-nineteenth century after centuries of opposition by Puritans and other religious denominations (see CHRISTMAS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA).
As if making up for lost time, a number of American clergymen made significant contributions to our Christmas carol heritage in this era. A Unitarian minister named Edmund Sears composed “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in 1849. Two Episcopalian clergymen soon added their contributions to the American repertoire. The Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr., authored “We Three Kings of Orient Are” in 1857, and the Reverend Phillips Brooks presented “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in 1865.
Carol Services and Ceremonies
A number of carol services and ceremonies predate the nineteenth-century English CEREMONY OF LESSONS AND CAROLS. Historical evidence suggests that the Welsh attended yearly PLYGAIN services at least as far back as the seventeenth century. Las POSADAS, an Hispanic folk play commemorating MARY and JOSEPH’s search for shelter in Bethlehem, also dates back hundreds of years. Other Christmas carol ceremonies include the Scandinavian Julotta service and the contemporary American Christmas pageant. Julotta, a church service consisting mostly of carol singing, takes place early on Christmas morning in churches glowing with the light of hundreds of candles. The Australian “Carols by Candlelight” represents a twentieth-century addition to the world’s carol ceremonies. Radio announcer Norman Banks organized and broadcast the first community carol-sing in Melbourne in the late 1930s. An appreciative public turned the event into a yearly tradition. Decades later the event flourishes, drawing tens of thousands of people together to sing the traditional songs of the season by candlelight (see also CHRISTMAS IN AUSTRALIA).
Throughout the month of December contemporary Americans ab-sorb Christmas carols in a variety of formats, from Christmas con-certs to church services to radio and television specials to mall Muzak. The diversity of songs included in these programs reflects our rich historical and ethnic heritage. In addition to a variety of old European carols and the nineteenth-century Anglo-American addi-tions mentioned above, the American carol repertoire includes a number of African-American folk songs. These include the beloved nineteenth-century spirituals “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Mary Had a Baby,” and “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow.”
Twentieth-century composers have unleashed legions of new Christmas songs. Unlike their nineteenth-century counterparts, however, relatively few of these new songs are religious in subject matter. Exceptions include the haunting ballad “I Wonder as I Wander” and the simple, reverent “Do You Hear What I Hear?” Many of the more familiar tunes, however, adopt a more secular approach to the celebration of Christmas. Some of these songs include “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “Silver Bells,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “White Christmas.” These songs reflect twentieth-century Americans’renewed interest in the secular joys of the season and the delights it brings to children.