What’s in a Christmas Carol?
Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas Carols. They were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced around stone circles The word “carol” is derived from the old French word caroller, which means dancing around in a circle. It was derived from the Latin choraula, which in turn came from the Greek “Chorus” (χορός).
Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived. Early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas and gave people Christian songs to sing instead of pagan ones.
In AD 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 AD, 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. By the time of the Middles Ages (the 1200s), most people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas altogether. 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 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.
One of the earliest carols that derived from these times was written around 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 started singing these carols and the words were changed for the local people.
When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped. However, the carols survived as people still sang them in secret. Carols remained mainly unsung until Victorian times, when two men named William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected lots of old Christmas music from villages in England. Eventually the tradition of singing Christmas carols grew around the world wherever Christmas was celebrated, including America.
The most popular Christmas Carol in America which is according to the music industry is “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby. Sadly, it does not mention anything about the birth of Christ, the Virgin Mary or make reference to anything Christian. In the late 19th Century, Americans began to embrace Christmas as a family holiday. Since that time, many carols have been written; some religious and some festive but not Christian. As Christmas became more commercial, artist & businesses became more involved with our Christmas traditions, including song lyrics. This Christmas, let us reflect on some of the more traditional songs such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentelmen” where the lyrics embrace the Gospel of Luke singing; “Good tidings of comfort and joy” as Luke expressed the emotions and feeling of Jesus Christ coming into the world. The Gospel of Luke 2:10 reads; “Then an Angel said to them …. I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” What’s in a Christmas carol? If it’s true to the season, salvation, forgiveness and unconditional love that only God can bring into the world in the form of His Son.
Merry Christmas / Καλά Χριστούγεννα, Rev. Fr. Bill Tragus