The History of Christmas Carols

Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas Carols. They were pre-Christian/pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, usually taking place around 22nd December. The word Carol actually means a dance or a song of praise and joy! Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived.

Christmas, remembering the birth of Jesus, then started to be celebrated at the same time as the solstice, so the early Christians started singing Christian songs instead of pre-Christian/pagan ones. In 129, a Roman Bishop said that a song called "Angel's Hymn" should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another famous early Christmas Hymn was written in 760, by Comas of Jerusalem, for the Greek Orthodox Church. Soon after this many composers all over Europe started to write 'Christmas carols'. However, not many people liked them as they were all written and sung in Latin, a language that the normal people couldn't understand.

This was changed by St. Francis of Assisi when, in 1223, he started his Nativity Plays in Italy. The people in the plays sang songs or 'canticles' that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and join in! The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.

The earliest carol, like this, was written in 1410. Sadly only a very small fragment of it still exists. The carol was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Most Carols from this time and the Elizabethan period are untrue stories, very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung in homes rather than in churches! Traveling singers or Minstrels started singing these carols and the words were changed for the local people wherever they were traveling. One carols that changed like this is 'I Saw Three Ships'.

Carol-singing men on a square in Ljubljana
Carol-singing men on a square in Ljubljana - Johann Weikhard von Valvasor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When the Puritans came to power in England in 1640s, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped. However, the carols survived as people still sang them in secret.

Until 1700 only the Psalms (poems from the Bible) were allowed to be sung in Anglican churches (Churches in the Church of England). From 1700, and for many years, the only Christmas song (or carol) which was allowed in Anglican churches was 'While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night' because its lyrics come from the Bible, telling the story of the Shepherds visiting the baby Jesus. During this time, many churches had musicians from the local area play the music for them and often local tunes were used for the songs. Because of this, 'While Shepherds Watched' is probably the carol sung to the most number of different tunes!

In 1739 Charles Wesley wrote 'A Hymn for Christmas-Day' with the first line "Hark how all the Welkin Rings". This became "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in 1754 when it was adapted for a 'Collection of Hymns for Social Worship'. However, the tune that we sing it to now was written by the composer Mendelssohn in 1840, which was adapted in 1855 with Wesley's words being set to it. (Wesley had thought his new Christmas hymn would be sung to the same tune as the Easter hymn 'Christ the Lord is Risen Today'.)

Carols remained mainly unsung, especially in churches, until Victorian times, when two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected lots of old Christmas music from villages in England. Carols were stilling being sung as folk songs in places like pubs but they often weren't thought of as 'proper' or 'nice' songs by the middle or upper classes. (Singing carols in pubs still happens today and there's some very famous carol singing in pubs in the north of England, especially in North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire.)

Before carol singing in places like churches became popular, there were sometimes official carol singers called 'Waits'. These were bands of people led by important local leaders (such as council leaders) who had the only power in the towns and villages to take money from the public (if others did this, they were sometimes charged as beggars!). They were called 'Waits' because they sang on Christmas Eve (This was sometimes known as 'watchnight' or 'waitnight' because of the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them.), when the Christmas celebrations began.

Also, during the Victorian period, many orchestras and choirs were being set up in the cities of England and people wanted Christmas songs to sing, so carols once again became popular in churches and concert halls. Many new carols, such as 'Good King Wenceslas', were also written in the Victorian period.

New carols services were created and became popular, as did the custom of singing carols in the streets. Both of these customs are still popular today! One of the most popular types of Carols services are Carols by Candlelight services. At this service, the church is only lit by candlelight and it feels very Christmassy! Carols by Candlelight services are held in countries all over the world.

The most famous type of Carol Service might be a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, where carols and Bible readings tell the Christmas Story.

Listen to and/or sing along with a simple Online Carol Service (about 35 minutes long) - opens big