Where did Christmas carols come from?

Where did all those Christmas carols come from? Nothing says “it’s Christmastime!” quite like hearing Christmas carols everywhere. So when did Christmas carols become popular? The tradition of singing songs at Christmas can be traced all the way back to the 4th century; these songs were usually solemn, however, and came from the monasteries. During the 15th and 16th centuries, joyful Christmas carols became popular and were written for everyday people to sing. In the 19th century, what we know today as Christmas carols became popular.

Early and Medieval Christmas Songs

For as long as there are records of Christmas being celebrated, there are records of songs that have accompanied it. It could even be said that the first Christmas song is found in the Scriptures themselves in Luke 1:46-55, in Mary’s song, “The Magnificat.” In it she praises God for his mercy after she is visited by the angel announcing the coming birth of Jesus. It is not until the 4th century, however, that we find the first songs written specifically about the birth of Christ in the church.

It was at this time that Christmas was designated an official holiday of the church. Once this happened, the “new feast was not long in finding a hymn-writer to embody in immortal Latin the emotions called forth by the memory of the Nativity.”[1] Some examples include: “Veni, redemptor gentium” (“Come, Redeemer of the Earth”), by Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan; “Jesus refulsit omnium” (“Jesus, Light of All the Nations”), by Hilary of Poitiers; “Corde natus ex parentis” (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”), by Prudentius.[2]

Between the 4th and 13th centuries, the Latin Christmas hymns stemmed largely from the monasteries and were more solemn and theological, focusing on Christ’s birth in its role in the redemption of man.[3] There is little in the songs having to do with Bethlehem, Jesus being wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a manger, shepherds and heavenly host, or wise men from the east following a star. There is “little sense of the human pathos of the Nativity.”[4] While the birth of Christ was immensely significant, it was more of a reverent celebration, as opposed to later in the Middle Ages and Renaissance period, where it was “a matter upon which human affection might lavish itself,” and the imagination of the songwriter led to more details of the Nativity included in the music.[5]

Late Medieval Christmas Songs

It is not until the close of the 13th century that Christmas music is found written in the vernacular of the common people.[6] At this time the songs began to focus more on the humanity of Jesus, and interest arose in the details of his incarnation and birth.[7] After St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity scene in Italy, Franciscans in his wake popularized a new kind of Christmas song that combined poetry with carol music.[8] One of the most commonly recognized contributors was the Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi.[9] Though the change was influenced by more than St. Francis alone, he was the “spark that kindled a mighty flame.”[10] The kind of song coming from this period was the closest yet to what would later be known as the “carol,” of largely English association.[11]

Christmas Carols

The 15th and 16th centuries are considered the “golden age” of Christmas carols.[12] The term itself appears to find origin in the Greek word choros, which was a “circle dance with singing.”[13] In 12th-century France the word could describe a dance that celebrated the emergence of spring, while in Italy it also described a dance, and in England by the 13th to 16th centuries it described singing combined with dancing, but not necessarily with religious elements.[14] As the word came to be used of Christmas songs, it is found with varied meaning, but the general idea is a “religious song, less formal and solemn than the ordinary Church hymn . . . a thing intended to be sung outside rather than within church walls,”[15] whose content is “narrative, contemplative, or celebratory, the spirit must be simple, the form normally strophic.”[16] There are about 500 surviving English carol texts from this period.[17] Today the word “carol” is used more broadly to describe most all Christmas songs.[18]

During and after the Protestant Reformation period, the use of carols all but ceased in many Protestant countries, such as England and Scotland, where the use of chanted psalms was implemented.[19] The disfavor was a result of associations of the songs with the Catholic church.[20] However, though the songs were banned from the churches, in some places they were still sung by the people, both in homes or door-to-door.[21] One place where the songs continued was Germany, the home of the great Reformer Martin Luther. Luther wrote the carol “Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her” (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”) and translated others from Latin into German.[22]

In the 19th century, the singing of Christmas carols underwent a rediscovery of sorts, which continues to this day. During this period we find collections of carols beginning to be made, with one of the earliest being that of Davies Gilbert in 1822, entitled, Some Ancient Christmas Carols, with the Tunes to which They Were Formerly Sung in the West of England, followed by that of W. Sandys, Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern in 1833, which included such songs as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sings,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”[23] Interestingly, this revival has taken place apart from much knowledge of the “golden age” of medieval Christmas carols in the 15th and 16th centuries.[24] In the 20th century, this popularity of carols has continued, which has seen the additions of more secularized songs like “White Christmas,” but also more religious songs that more properly could be labeled “carols,” such as “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Carol of the Bells.”[25]

[1] Clement A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance (New York: Dover Publications, 1976), 31.

[2] Gerry Bowler, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000), 37.

[3] Miles, Christmas Customs, 34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bower, World Encyclopedia, 37; Miles, Christmas Customs, 36.

[7] Bower, World Encyclopedia, 37.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.; J. E. Stevens, “Carol,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 3 (Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2003), 150.

[10] Miles, Christmas Customs, 37.

[11] Stevens, “Carol,” 150.

[12] Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 38.

[13] Ibid.; Stevens, “Carol,” 150.

[14] Miles, Christmas Customs, 47.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, eds. The New Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), xii.

[17] Stevens, “Carol,” 150.

[18] S. K. Roll, “Christmas and Its Cycle,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2003), 3:557.

[19] Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 38.

[20] Stevens, “Carol,” 150.

[21] Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 38.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Stevens, “Carol,” 151.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Bowler, World Encyclopedia, 38.

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