History of Christmas Carols

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Christmas carols are a ubiquitous part of our society, but where do they come from? In this lesson, we'll explore the long history of this tradition and see how it turned into the custom we know today.

Christmas Carols

Between October and November of every year, American society becomes divided in one of our fundamental debates: when does the Christmas season actually begin? One common answer is this: when Christmas carols start playing on the radio. Christmas carols are popular songs traditionally devoted to the religious and secular celebration of the Christmas holiday, a day marked in Christian calendars to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. While we know and love these songs (at least until we get sick of hearing them everywhere), they once sounded quite different. In fact, the history of Christmas carols dates back thousands of years, back before nights were silent, bells jingled, and Santa Claus was coming to town.

Origins: Pagans and Romans

Christmas carols have origins in two very different traditions. The Christmas holiday is celebrated around the winter solstice not because this was historically believed to be the birth month of Christ, but because the early Church needed to turn pagan holidays into new ones. The winter solstice was a powerful pagan holiday in Europe, celebrated through drinking, dancing, and the loud singing of joyful and popular songs.

In the first centuries CE, the early Christian Church began co-opting pagan festivals and giving them religious structure. While the celebrations around the solstice remained, the nature of it changed. Pagan songs were replaced with Christian ones, sung in Latin by the clergy. The first recorded evidence we have of songs being performed specifically for this new holiday of Christmas appears from a Roman bishop in 129 CE. The song was called Angel's Hymn.

Medieval Carols

Christmas songs in Latin and by the clergy weren't very popular amongst the common people. They were only performed in church. As time went on, Christmas became less and less celebrated. It was a minor holiday, but it did have its traditions. One included getting a group of friends, and traveling from house to house singing songs. However, at the time, these songs were bawdy and lewd. If the homeowners were amused, they would reward the singers with cakes or treats. It's sort of a mix between caroling and trick-or-treating with origins in ancient pagan celebrations. The pagan element was lost, but the custom remained.

This changed in the 13th century. In Italy, a friar named Francis of Assisi challenged pagan-based customs with nativity plays, musical narratives of Christ's birth. The music was entirely religious in nature, but this time it wasn't sung in Latin. St. Francis insisted that they were performed in the languages of the people. These joyful songs quickly spread across Europe to be sung in homes and with families. In England, traveling minstrels moved from village to village singing popular religious Christmas songs, with the occasional lewd ballad tossed in for entertainment.

According to tradition, Francis of Assisi developed the nativity scene to accompany the nativity plays
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From Puritans to Victorians

The tradition of singing Christmas songs became common across Europe. At the time, it was called wassailing. Wassail was a mulled wine, so we can see that singing these songs was still associated with popular festivals and enjoyment. However, the tradition was treated differently in England after the nation separated from the Catholic Church. Christmas songs were seen by Puritans as too Catholic or too based in pagan customs. When the Puritans came to power in the 17th century, they attempted to abolish the practice of wassailing.

Wassailing remained popular in English villages, but it was not as public of a practice as it used to be until the 19th century. In 1840, the German Prince Albert married England's Queen Victoria. He brought with him several German customs, including the lively celebration of Christmas. This celebration, known as the Yuletide, included chopping down pine trees and covering them in candles, and popular music. The wassailing traditions of England were reinvigorated with enthusiasm, now known simply as caroling.

Caroling as we know it really emerged in the 19th century
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