Christmas Carols: What’s in a Tradition?

Dec 14, 2016

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For as long as anybody alive today can remember, caroling has been a popular part of many families’ Christmas traditions. Whether it’s just hanging around your own home, enjoying the eggnog and the company, or making your way out into the neighbourhood to spread the joy, and no matter if it’s “Deck the Halls,” or “Joy to the World,” or “Silent Night,” or even “Jingle Bells,” Christmas carols provide the soundtrack to our holidays. But when did all this start?  Why do we feel compelled to go sing them to strangers from their front porches? And what does caroling’s future look like?

A Little History

The funny thing about carols is that dance came before the music! What do I mean by that? Well, the word “carol” doesn’t come from any word that means song, instead, it comes from a word for dance. In Old French, “carole” means “kind of dance,” “choraula,” from Latin, means “a dance to the flute,” and the Greek word “choraules” means “flute player who accompanies the choral dance.”

Though a lot of what we would call “modern” carols have a lot to do with the religious overtones of the season and the holiday, originally the songs were much more secular. They were, in fact, up-tempo melodies with choruses that alternated and verses tailor made for those traditional dances. You might even be surprised to learn that, just like so many other traditions we associate with the Christmas season, caroling pre-dates the Christian celebrations. It most likely started as a part of the Festival of Yule, a pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, and often thought of as one of the oldest known human winter celebrations. During these festivities, Northern Europeans would join together in song and dance. As the tradition evolved into what we know today, the pagan songs slowly became hymns instead, and lost their relation to dance.

It’s hard to say where most of our modern carols came from. Where they came from, who wrote them, how they became what we know today, the answers to many of these questions are lost to time. Caroling is one of the only oral traditions that has survived to the modern world, as we pass the songs on to each new generation.

The first carols to deal with the subject of the birth of Jesus weren’t written until sometime around the 4th or 5th century. And even then they wouldn’t become associated with the Christmas season for another 8 or 900 years. It wasn’t until the 13th century that St. Francis of Assisi was credited with including more upbeat hymns in his Christmas services. He used high energy, joy-filled music to contrast the much more somber, somewhat depressing music that normally went with Christmas at the time. But even then it would be a long time before the idea of spreading the Christmas Spirit through singing in the community would expand across Europe.

The Door to Door Tradition

Today, many caroling groups go out for charity. This, too, seems to be a tradition rooted in the deep, long forgotten past. Some historians say the concept of caroling for charity grew out of a practice that was common in feudal societies. Poor citizens would “sing for their supper” (which is probably where that phrase came from too). Another theory about going door to door comes from the idea that carolers were not allowed to perform in church. There is a certain amount of historical truth to this, since Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas celebrations in England from 1649 to 1660. He thought Christmas was a serious holiday, and should be observed as such. Still another theory makes the claim that the door to door idea didn’t arise until the 16th century, when peasants adapted the old pagan traditions to go “wassailing,” which was to request nourishment from their “superiors” in exchange for singing and good tidings.

The name, “wassailing,” comes from a wassail, a thik, hot, spiced drink that kept the carolers warm. At the time it was as much a part of the Christmas season as eggnog is today. As the tradition grew and evolved, it became more and more about the caroling, though the inclusion of a tasty, hot beverage has persisted. Unfortunately, thanks to Oliver Cromwell’s ban on Christmas celebrations, caroling’s popularity didn’t see a significant rise until around the 19th century and the Victorian Era. Those people could appreciate a joyful hymn!

What’s in a Name?

Although the word “carol” almost certainly comes from all those ancient words with their roots in dance, there is an old English legend that offers another explanation for the name. According to some, Christmas carols were named for Carol Poles, an English girl who, according to the myth, went missing in London during the holiday season, sometime in the latter part of the 19th century. Legend holds the community searched for her by going door to door, singing to let their good intentions be known. As beautiful of a story as that is, it’s probably nothing more than that: a story.

Modern Caroling

Despite what we see on TV during the holiday season, caroling has declined quite a bit in the modern world. It’s not unusual to still see caroler singing outside shopping malls, churchyards, or other group celebrations, but the groups of revelers going door to door have become all but extinct. Talking to folks from the “Baby Boomer” generation might turn up a handful of caroling stories from their childhood, but anyone born after 1960 probably doesn’t have any of those memories. There are a few potential reasons for this, but possibly the most convincing one is the simple fact that our society has changed over time. In today’s world we tend to be a little more aware of the fact that not everyone around us celebrates the same things, or in the same ways. Singing carols to a stranger requires what some would call an “assumption of a similarity of culture” between the caroler and the listener. As Canada and the United States become more diverse, that’s simply an assumption that can’t be made anymore.

Of course, that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the season’s songs! Maybe a new tradition should be started; let’s forget about going door to door, and just get a group of friends together, find a nice spot, and spread the joy!