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A Christmas carol for everyone

 
Christmas is fast approaching and there is no doubt that Christmas songs and carols will play a big part in our celebrations. While humming along to these jolly Christmas tunes many of us are unaware of their history. Christmas carolling seems a traditional and historical practice, but carols have not always been popular and were not always associated with Christmas. If you’re interested in discovering how our musical celebrations of Christmas developed over time then take a look at our Christmas timeline below:

 

  • Pagan. Carols appear to have originated from Pagan Songs which were sung at Winter Solstice/Yule (the shortest day of the year) celebrations before the rise of Christianity. This usually took place on the 21st December and was a celebration of the return of the sun and the lengthening of daylight hours.

 

  • Roman. Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity led to Christians adopting some Pagan rituals, songs and traditions as part of their own Christmas celebrations. In the 4th Century AD, Pope Julius I declared December 25th as a national holiday and the celebration of Jesus’ birth.

 

  • Middle Ages 1200’s. Many people did not like carols during this period as they were often written and sung in Latin, a language which most people couldn’t understand. However, people did gather with friends, visiting several houses singing songs, known as ‘Wassailing’, a reference to the alcoholic drink Wassail. These songs were often rather vulgar and rude and intended to amuse and insult homeowners. Therefore, the church viewed Wassailing as irreligious.

 

  • Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans 17th Century. Christmas celebrations and carol singing were stopped as Christmas songs were seen as having had too strong of a link to Catholicism and Paganism. Carol singing was then done in secret but almost completely ceased during this time.

 

  • Victorian Christmas 19th Century. After Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, the German Yuletide traditions which he introduced to Britain became popularised. Christmas carolling returned and it was more popular than ever.  

 

  • The First World War. The Christmas Truce of 1914 saw an unofficial ceasefire on the frontline between British and German troops. This was initiated by the Germans lighting their trenches and singing Christmas carols. Major J.Q. Henriques of the London Regiment stated in 1914 that: 'As darkness came on lights were seen in the German lines in the Rue du Bois, at first our fellows fired at them and the Germans put them out - gradually the firing died down, and all the enemy sniping ceased. The silence was almost uncanny and we were all very suspicious and extra vigilant, expecting some trick. Later on... their whole line was illuminated. I think they had hoisted lanterns on tall poles on their parapet and in their trenches. After they began to sing... They sang beautifully the whole effect was weird in the extreme.’

 

  • Modern day. The tradition of Christmas carol singing still remains today but modern Christmas songs have largely over taken them in popularity.
     

Examples of Carols:

 

Roman= The first Christian hymn, ‘Angel’s Hymn’ 129 AD now known as ‘Angels we have heard on high’ with the famous chorus ‘Gloria, in excelsis Deo.’
Victorian= ‘We three Kings’, an American carol written in 1857 by Rev. John Henry Hopkins.