The day after Thanksgiving – and well before that in the mall 1 – you’ll begin hearing Christmas carols. According to Marshall Brain who contributed to the How Stuff Works article on How Christmas Works,
Marshall was not far off the mark. Before Christmas 2000, I took a look at the 54 albums, tapes and CDs of Christmas music I owned at that time. All total, there were over 600 carols; but when you eliminate all the duplicates, there were about 175 – most of which you’ll never hear. What you are most likely to hear are the 25 carols represented by ASCAP’s Holiday CD released in 1999 which featured what ASCAP termed the "top Christmas carols of the century" – plus another dozen or so "traditional" carols.
But there are many more than these three dozen. And just how we came to have carols, and their checkered history, is the subject of this modest history of The Hymns and Carols of Christmas.
Douglas D. Anderson, Editor
A History of the Hymns and Carols of Christmas
The word "carol" comes from the Middle English carole, which was a kind of round dance with singing, from Old French carole, probably from Late Latin choraula, choral song, from Latin choraulês, accompanist, from Greek khoraulês : khoros, choral dance. A modern definition is a popular, joyful song, especially celebrating Christmas (although in prior centuries, carols were a more generic description of popular, seasonal songs, including New Year, Easter, Spring, Summer, Harvest, etc.). 2a
Carols evolved in England during the Medieval period; the earliest known carols date from the 15th century Mystery Plays2b (Coventry Carol and Joseph Lieber, Joseph Mein). Carols are in the vernacular of the people (as opposed to Church Latin) and are also less religious. They were derived from traditional drinking, feasting, or folk songs, straying from the strictly religious themes found in Church music. This definition also points out a major dividing line within the subject of Christian music: the Church hymn vs. the Folk carol. There can also many subcategories of carols. 3 By the 14th century these traditional carols, often accompanied with dancing, were firmly entrenched as part of the festivities surrounding Christmas.
The connection of carols with the church is evident in Latin segments of text ("Make we joy now in this feast, In quo Christus natus est"); 4 carols also had connections with courtly ceremony ("Boar's Head Carol"), and with convivial occasions ("Wassail, Wassail, all over the town"). "O come, all ye faithful" and "Angels we have heard on high" are typical of carols used in religious services. The carol was tied more strictly to the Christmas season in the 19th century, and Christmas songs from other countries also began to be included in the category of carols.
1. The earliest I ever saw Christmas decorations in a store not devoted to Christmas was September 13th. Return
2b. See, generally, Corpus Christi Day and the Performance of Mysteries, from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, June 2). Return
4. Such carols or hymns are termed "Macaronic." They enjoyed particular vogue in the 15th century. See David L. Jeffrey, University of Ottawa, "Early English Carols and the Macaronic Hymn," printed at Research Web Site of the Faculty of Arts, University of Western Ontario. Also see William Sandys, Specimens of Macaronic Poetry (Richard Beckley, 1831), and William Otto Wehrle, The Macaronic Hymn Tradition in Medieval English Literature (The Catholic University of America, 1933). Return
The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
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