A History of Christmas Carols – Their Origins and Significance
Copyright (c) 2012 Robert Hinchliffe
The history of Christmas Carols goes back as far as the 13th century. The word carol is an old word for a verse song with a refrain, so Christmas Carol simply means a song on a Christmas theme. This very seasonal form of worship music has a long tradition in most countries of Western Europe, a tradition which has spread throughout the whole of the Christian world. In France they are “Noels”, a word which has found its way into the English language as Nowell. In Germany they have the “Weihnachtslieder” which translates as Christmas Eve Songs.
Many well-known carols actually relate to Advent and Epiphany so are not really Christmas Carols at all. “The Holly and the Ivy” is a carol all about the Advent Ring, whilst, “We three Kings” is obviously related to the celebration of Epiphany. However, all the seasonal worship songs are gathered together under that one term, Christmas Carol. The traditional Sunday School Nativity Play draws together the whole of the Christmas story incorporating aspects of both Advent and Epiphany. The two versions of Christ’s birth as recorded in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels are woven together to make one continuous narrative. Appropriate Christmas Carols are usual worked into the action to reinforce the storyline.
Some of the earliest examples in the history of Christmas carols are based on pagan songs which were changed and updated to carry the Christian message. One of the oldest Christmas Carols in the English tradition is “The Boar’s Head Carol” first printed in 1521. This was initially sung as the boar’s head, the centre dish of many a traditional Christmas dinner, was carried into the room on Christmas Day.
Within the long history of Christmas Carols, we can encounter all aspects of the whole Christmas story. The angels and shepherds of Luke’s account appear in many carols; the story of Herod and the wise men reported in Matthew’s Gospel in others. There are the joyful carols such as “O come, all ye faithful” and “God rest you merry, gentlemen”. There are the gentle carols, especially loved by children, such as “Away in a manger” and “Silent Night”. There are also the reflective carols where the ultimate significance of Christ’s birth is considered. A particular favourite of mine is “See, amid the winter’s snow”. This hymn has a chorus which hints at what Christ’s incarnation was all about:
“Hail, thou ever-blessed morn! Hail, redemption’s happy dawn! Sing, through all Jerusalem: Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Whatever our background or upbringing, if we grew up in a mainly Christian society we are aware of Christmas Carols from a very early age. They are part and parcel of the memories we have of our childhood Christmases. It is also thanks to the widespread singing of carols, that Christmas is the one time of year when the faithless in our society simply cannot avoid the Christian message how ever hard they try. The history of Christmas carols is ongoing as new examples are being added to the available repertoire every year.
About the Author
Robert Hinchliffe is a professional musician and Methodist local preacher. He is an oboist and composer; – also a writer of worship songs. This article is a result of his recent research into the history of music in Christian worship. For more details visit www.robsworshipmusic.com/mcweb.htm and find out how you can access a FREE copy of Robert’s new Christmas song, “The Greatest Gift”
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- Decoding traditional Christmas symbols: Carolers (Video) (examiner.com)
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