Each day between December 1-25, we will look at one of the traditional symbols of Christmas, what these symbols mean and how they tell the Christmas story of our Savior’s birth.
The word Carol actually means dance or a song of praise and joy! So it makes sense that we include them in the celebration of Christ’s birth. Originally, carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived. While, the actual origin of caroling as a part of our Christmas celebration is really unknown, several countries have claimed to be the birthplace of the custom. However, from the beginning, music of some kind was a part of the church festivities in honor of the birth of Jesus. While history records instances of carol singing, we can safely assume that caroling was first done by the choir of Angels who sang, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth, peace, and good will to all people.”
History of Carols
One of the earliest documents of caroling can be found in 129, when 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, by Comas of Jerusalem, for the Greek Orthodox Church. Soon after this many composers all over Europe started to write ‘Christmas carols’. Then, in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi started Nativity Plays in Italy. As part of the production, people sang songs or “canticles” that told the story during the plays. These new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
One early carol, written in 14010, was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Only a very small fragment of the song still exists. Most Carols from this time and the Elizabethan era are not Biblically based, but rather a very loose ideas from the Christmas story. They were seen as entertaining more so than religious songs. Traveling Minstrels would change the words for local people to understand. An example of one of these songs that we still sing during Christmas time today is, “I Saw Three Ships.”
We know that caroling existed in Germany in the 15th century because Martin Luther wrote that when Christmas was celebrated, he went with others from house to house and village to village singing popular Christmas carols. We could safely assume that caroling was first done by the Choir of Angels who sang, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth, peace, and good will to all people.”
In the 1640s, as the Puritans came to power, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped. However, the people still sang them in secret and carols survived that era. Then in the Victorian era, William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected old Christmas music from villages in England, and once again their notes were being sung in the open.
Official Carol Singers or “Waits”
Before carol singing in public became popular, there were sometimes official carol singers called ‘Waits’. These were bands of people led by important local leaders (such as council leaders). They were called ‘Waits’ because they only sang on Christmas Eve, also known as ‘watchnight’ or ‘waitnight’ because of the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them. These official carols singers ushered in the Christmas celebrations. Also, at this time, many orchestras and choirs were being set up in the cities of England and people wanted Christmas songs to sing, so carols once again became popular. Many new carols, such as ‘Good King Wenceslas’, were also written in the Victorian period.
Carols by Candlelight
New carols services were created and became popular, as did the custom of singing carols in the streets. Both of these customs are still popular today! One of the most popular types of Carols services are Carols by Candlelight services. At this service, the church is only lit by candlelight and it feels very Christmassy! Carols by Candlelight services are held in countries all over the world.
The most famous type of Carol Service might be a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, where carols and Bible readings tell the Christmas Story. You can experience one of these services here. A service of Nine Lessons and Carols has nine Bible readings (or lessons), that tell the Christmas story, with one or two carols between each lesson. Now, famously, the opening verse of “Once in Royal David’s City,” is sung by a single boy chorister (or treble) but in the early years of the service at King’s College it was sung by the whole choir. Several choristers train to perform the solo, but the boy who will sing it is only told a couple of minutes before the service starts, so he can’t get too nervous!
Today, we have many Christmas Carols to sing and you can sing along from our YouTube Christmas playlist. Just click play below:
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What’s Inside God, Love and Marshmallow Wars?
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