Christmas carols started out as pagan songs which were sung at Winter solstice, around such places as Stonehenge. Solstice in the Winter is around December 22nd and carol means song or dance of joy and praise. Songs like carols were sung all year long but the practice has since gravitated towards the Christmas season only. Christians in the early days substituted carols for the pagans songs at solstice and a Roman bishop in 129 AD allowed a song which was called Angel’s Hymn, to be sung at the Christmas service. In 760 AD a hymn was written for the Greek Orthodox church by Comas of Jerusalem.
Classical composers started to write carols in Europe after that but many people found them unintelligible, as they were in Latin. During the Middle Ages, a lot of people didn’t bother celebrating Christmas. St. Francis of Assisi started the custom of putting on Passion Plays in 1233. He performed these plays in Italy and actors and singers in the plays sang the story as canticles. Most of the time these plays were sung in the language of the country they were performed in, making it easier for ordinary people to join in and enjoy.
The populace in Germany, France, Spain, and other European countries started to enjoy singing carols. The first carol similar to our modern ones was written in 1410. Only a remnant remains and the carol was about Jesus and Mary and meeting people in Bethlehem. During the Elizabethan period and earlier, carols were fictional stories, based on a few nativity time period pieces about the holy family. They were considered entertainment, rather than religious pieces. People sang in homes and not churches.
Minstrels traveled around and sang these songs and adapted the words to various areas and people. I Saw Three Ships is an adapted song and carol. With the puritans in power in England in 1647, singing was forbidden, but people still sang carols in secret. They came back strongly during the Victorian era as two men collected music and songs from the various villages in the U.K. Official carol singers were called Waits. They sang on Christmas eve and could gather in money for singing. They were called Waits as this night was often referred to as waitnight or watchnight. Shepherds were watching their sheep on Christmas eve, when the angels appeared over their heads in Jerusalem.
England had a burst of energy towards setting up church choirs and in the writing of different Christmas carols. Good King Wenceslas and other classics were written around this time, and as the demand increased for new carols, so did the production of them. Regular carol services were created and people started singing them in the streets around the Christmas period. This tradition has carried over to the present and there are even special Christmas time performances of plays given in many countries such as Amahl and the Night Visitors, and A Christmas Carol, amongst others.
Candlelight services on Christmas Eve are extremely popular and brand new carols are being created all year long. Some have their basis in very old tunes and lyrics. One spectacular carol service is broadcast on the BBC, live, all over the world. King’s College puts it on and it’s the done from the old college in Cambridge, in the U.K. First started in 1918, it was to serve as a celebration of the end of WWI.
Another moving performance (actually, several) are put on by Disneyworld in Florida. Celebrities host the performances and they are narrative, along with different choirs singing carols, and a live orchestra. These shows are always sold out and Disneyworld allows for some standing room only “seats”. People line up many hours before the shows, which are staged on a wonderful pavilion stage overlooking the lagoon, right across the street from the America section of Epcot center.
Some of the hundreds of carols which remain popular today, include:
Some carols are so moving, and open with crystal clear high notes, that many find the hair on their arms standing on end (in a good way of course). Many families gather around the old piano and have their own tradition of singing carols on Christmas Eve. Carols have been made into animated mini-movies, and you’ll find these all over the web at holiday time.
There are even Christmas cards out which play carols if you press the little embedded chip in them. If you have one of these, make sure it closes all the way or else the battery will run out and you’ll be left with a non-musical Christmas card!