There are historical records from as early as 129 AD of songs written specifically for Christmas celebrations. These Christmas songs were primarily written in Latin, and were not called Carols, but hymns. The word carol comes from the French word carole, meaning circle dance, or song of praise and joy. The singing of carols did not originate with Christianity, but with the pagan practice of celebrating the seasons. The Winter Solstice celebration generally took place around the 22nd of December. It was this time of the year that the Christians claimed for their own celebration of the birth of Christ.
The majority of the first Christmas Carols were written in Latin, which was understood only by members of the elite churched few. Because of this, by the Middle Ages (the 1200s) the majority of Christians lost interest in the singing of Christmas Carols. In 1223, the beloved St. Francis of Assisi revived an interest in Christmas and in the singing of Carols. He started putting on musical plays in which the majority of the songs were written in the language of the common people. Because of his efforts, the singing of Christmas Carols once again began to spread throughout Europe. These Carols were rarely sung in church. Instead, the music resounded from the streets, and in homes.
During the Great Reformation (beginning in 1570), there was a revival of hymns, including the singing of Christmas Carols in the language of the people. And although it would be many years before the Christmas Carol would come into its own, new freedoms were coming to the common people, including the right to worship as they chose, and to sing music how, when and where they pleased.
In the Victorian era, two men by the names of William Sandys and Davis Gilbert published a collection of Christmas songs, old and new from various villages in England. "Adeste Fideles" ("O Come all ye faithful") appears in its current form in the mid-18th century, although the words may have originated in the thirteenth century. The first appearance in print of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", "The First Noel", "I Saw Three Ships" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" was in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833) by William Sandys.
The joy of music filled England once again, and spread throughout Europe (and eventually to the New World). Old and new traditions of Christmas trees and holly wreaths; presents and stockings were freely celebrated, and elaborated upon. The sounds and sights of Christmas; the rejoicing and the peace announced by the angels; the music of Christmas had refused to be silenced!
The songs that were once quieted because of fear and ignorance, now sound out freely throughout much of the world, not only from Christian homes and churches, but also from elevators and skate parks and shopping mall sound systems. No matter what style of music a person may choose to enjoy the rest of the year, the traditional Christmas Carol breaks through the musical preferences and barriers, to be universally recognized as the most beloved music of all people; of all times.
Join in as we sing this week!