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The long, sometimes forgotten, history of Christmas carols


Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

Many of our modern traditions have deep, and often, forgotten roots. 

Unraveling the tangled roots of even the most innocuous of our common and venerated practices can uncover forgotten controversies.  

And that includes our Christmas traditions. 

Who would ever have thought that Christmas carols were outlawed at least twice over the centuries during the early history of the church?

The word “caroling” can be traced back to the Greek word choraulien, meaning “to dance to a flute.” So, really, caroling dates back even before Christianity.

The first carols had been heard and performed by pagan cultures in Europe hundreds of years before the dawn of Christianity.
Early carols would have one person singing while the others danced in a circle.

In the early years of the Roman Catholic church, as Christianity was still struggling against the influence of the pagan customs of many cultures, carols were frowned on by the church.

But as soon as there were Christians, there were Christians adopting old melodies for use as Christmas songs.

And some of the clergy joined in by incorporating Christmas songs into early church services.

A Roman bishop in AD 129, for example, decreed that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. 

In the fourth century, St. Hilary of Poitiers composed the Latin carol, “Jesus refulsitomnium”  (“Jesus illuminates all”) and the poet Prudentius wrote “Corde natus ex Parentis” (“God’s Love for His Only Son”) also in the fourth century.

But really, these were more hymns than carols, but they did encourage people to make songs about Christmas, and so they did. 
These probably were put to the tunes of old pagan songs that had once been used for celebrating the Winter Solstice, until the early Christians appropriated them for Christmas and other occasions during the church year.

The church must have felt threatened by these early carols because of their pagan origins and it went as far as to ban the singing of carols many times over the centuries. 

Carols were prohibited as early as the mid-seventh century in a decree issued by the Council of Chalonsur-Saone.

Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with bringing carols back into the church.

In 1223, during a Christmas Midnight Mass in a cave in Greccio, in the province of Umbria – a region in central Italy – St. Francis introduced the singing of carols as part of his service. 

The exact music and lyrics of Sr. Francis’ carols and many ancient carols that followed seem to be lost to time, but historians have determined that one of the oldest carols is one that people are still singing today – “The Friendly Beasts.”

It is a song that is thought to have originally been written partly in Old Latin and partly in French. It talked about the animals that surrounded Christ at the nativity and traces back to the 12th century. 

So popular was it to be sung at nativity plays that it quickly became a favorite in England, as well.
Another French carol, “Entre le boeuf et l’âne gris” (“Between the Ox and the Grey Ass”), is said to date back as far as the 13th century. 

The German/Latin carol “In Dulci Jubilo” (later borrowed by Johann Sebastian Bach) also dates back to the Middle Ages.

Even King Henry VIII (1491-1547) wrote a carol called “Green Groweth the Holly,” whose beautiful manuscript can be seen in the British Library. 

Carols had started to catch on. They were sung on the streets and in people’s homes and were used in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages. 

Another carol from the Middle Ages that we still sing is the “Coventry Carol,” which was played as accompaniment to a during a play about the nativity that originated in the town of Coventry.  

But carol singing was not originally limited to the celebration of the Christmas season. The New Year, Easter, Saint’s days, and planting and harvesting times all generated their own carols. 

Our tradition of “going caroling” may have started during the Middle Ages, when wandering minstrels traveled from town to town performing for anyone with “the coin” to pay for their entertainment or offering food or shelter in exchange. 

During “Christmas-Tide,” the minstrels sang carols. 

Eventually, groups of “wassailers,” who were folks who travelled from house-to-house singing carols during the Twelve Days of Christmas, had the use of many English carols. 

Another early form of caroling was done by village “waits,” or watchmen, who patrolled the streets of the old walled cities singing out the hours of the night. 

During the Christmas season, they included carols in their announcements.

Eventually,  the term “carolers” was used to describe musicians who sang for various civic events or went from house-to-house during the Christmas season.

But it took a long time for Christmas music to be universally approved by the church.

Throughout the centuries, many churchmen and parishioners continued to believe that Christmas music was inappropriate for what was supposed to be a solemn holiday. 

In the 13th century, the Council of Avignon (1209) issued a ban on the singing of carols. 

And taking music from secular sources which was thought to “intoxicate the ear” was denounced as a sin in the 14th century by Pope John XXII. 

But by the 14th century, carol singing was firmly established throughout Europe. 

No amount of complaining by the church could stop the people from adding new carols to the ever-growing lexicon of popular Christmas songs.

In the 15th century, The Council of Basle (1435) issued a ban on the composing or singing of secular Christmas music. 

In the 16th century the Council of Trent (1545-63) also attempted to squelch secular tendencies in Roman Catholic church music. 

The Church was, of course, fighting a losing battle. But the battle wasn’t over yet.

Singing songs in the celebration of Christmas actually became against the law of the land in mid-17th Century England – during and after the English Civil War. 

Oliver Cromwell was on a mission to cleanse the nation of its most decadent excesses. 

On the top of that list of excesses was the happy celebration of Christmas and all its festive gaiety.
The singing of a popular Christmas song of the period like “The Holly and the Ivy” could land a person in serious trouble.  
Christmas carols were completely  banned in all of Britain during Cromwell’s reign.

Of course, singing Christmas carols was so universally popular and firmly established in the culture that eventually the British government and the Catholic church saw fit to loosen their restrictions on their use. 

The people’s music, a joyous and spontaneous response to the glad tidings of the Christmas season would not be denied. 

I feel sure that, as long as the human race continues, so will our tradition of singing the beautiful carols of Christmas.

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