Whoever SHE is.

Which begs the question:

Carol Who?

Or rather: “What?”

The medieval words ‘carol’ and ‘carole’ (from the French and Anglo-Norman) may refer to a popular dance-song with pagan associations, a courtly dance or dance-song, a song of popular religious devotion, a multi-part (polyphonic) song in a certain style, or a popular religious procession.

A carol is now broadly taken to be a song associated with a given season – especially Christmas – expressing religious joy.

The carol is public music, and different carols may have different social functions.

First Instances

The first specifically Christmas hymns (or songs of praise to God) that we know of, appeared in 4th-century Rome. “Corde natus ex Parentis” (“Of the Father’s love begotten”), for example, was written by the Spanish poet Prudentius (who died in 413 AD) – and is still sung in some churches, today.

During the 9th and 10th centuries, the Christmas “Sequence” or “Prose” was introduced, in Northern European monasteries. The songs developed, under Bernard of Clairvaux, into a sequence of rhymed stanzas, or verses.

In the 12th century, the French monk, Adam of St. Victor, began to derive music from popular songs – introducing something closer to the traditional Christmas carol, as we know it.

Through The Ages

By the 13th century, a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs had emerged, in native languages – notably in Italy, Germany, and France. This was greatly influenced by the Italian saint, Francis of Assisi.

The carol seems to have crystallized, in the early 14th century, as a popular religious song. Most referred to the Virgin Mary (mother of Jesus), the Christ child (Jesus, himself), or to saints whose feast days follow Christmas. Many are macaronic, mixing two languages – usually Latin and English.

What you might call the Golden Age of the Christmas carol ran from about the years 1350 to 1550.

Christmas carols in English first appeared in a 1426 work by John Awdlay, of Shropshire. He listed twenty-five “Caroles of Cristemas”, probably sung by groups of wassailers (merrymaking performers), who went from house to house.

Old Favorites

Carols are often based on medieval chord patterns – which give them their unique musical sound. Some carols – such as “Good King Wenceslas” and “The Holly and the Ivy” – can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages. “Adeste Fidelis” (“O Come All Ye Faithful”) appeared in its current form, in the mid-18th century – but the words may have originated in the 13th century.

The 18th-century English reformer Charles Wesley wrote texts for at least three Christmas carols. His best-known and loved is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – which was originally called “Hark! How All the Welkin Rings.” Whatever a welkin was.

In Austria, Mohr and Gruber composed “Silent Night”, in 1818, for the St. Nicholas Church, Obendorf.

William B. Sandys’ “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” of 1833 was the first collection in print of many classic English carols. It contributed in no small part to the mid-Victorian revival of the Christmas festival.

Modern Ones, Too

Completely secular (non-religious) songs for the Christmas season emerged, from the late 18th century. “Deck The Halls” dates from 1784, and “Jingle Bells” was copyrighted in 1857.

An increasing number of Christmas holiday songs were commercially produced in the 20th century, including rock, jazz, and blues variations. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, for instance, was written in 1934, and performed for the first time on Eddie Cantor’s radio show, in the USA. Like many others, the song has since spawned numerous cover versions – which range from the sublime, to the ridiculous.

Of course, you’ll know about the ridiculous if you’ve read my instalment on Christmas pop music (“12 Daze of Christmas, 5: Christmas Rocks!”).

That’s all for now, though.

May your hearts be light.