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The History of Christmas Carols

Christmas is synonymous with traditional songs called carols. Read about how the Christmas carol has changed through the years.

'Deck the halls', 'Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer', 'It came upon a midnight clear', etc. These are all songs that are sung only at Christmas time. They are popularly known as Christmas carols. The tradition of singing Christmas carols can be traced back to the thirteenth century. Here are some more facts about these songs.

Origin of Carols

'Carol' refers to a song that is sung at festival times. The carol itself can have religiously oriented lyrics but is not necessarily a part of church worship. Most carols are joyful songs with quick beats. They may be about a popular character or about a particular festive event. Carols are not exclusive to Christmas. Traditionally, carols were sung at other times like Easter, during the harvest season, etc. However, with time, these songs have diminished in number. Today carols related to Christmas make up the biggest group of these songs.

The word 'carol' is derived from the Latin word 'choraula'. It literally means a dance performed in a circle, accompanied by singing. From the 1100s to the 1350s, carols were purely dance songs, during festival celebrations. Later on, they started to be used during religious processions, and in church plays.

Christmas Carols

A Christmas carol is also known as a Noel. The lyrics of a Christmas carol do not have to be only about Christmas. They can also be about special winter activities or about the season in general. The first Christmas carols were community songs, which were sung not only to celebrate Christmas, but also the harvest season. Later on, these songs began to assume a greater religious significance, especially once they started to be sung as a part of church worship.

A typical Christmas carol consists of at least one verse and a chorus. The carol will have a distinct tune, which is usually based on musical arrangements and chords of the Medieval period. This is why carol tunes are similar to those of western classical music. For example, the carol 'Angels from the realms of glory' is one of the oldest known carols, whose origins can be traced back to the Middle Ages. This is one of the few ancient carols that are still sung in churches today.

In recent years carols have started to be segregated. Those tunes that do not have religious lyrics are often termed as 'Christmas songs' rather than carols. This has been done primarily as a politically correct measure. Since a Christmas song is more festive rather than religious, it enables people of other faiths to take part in group singing events without being disrespectful to their own religious beliefs. However, in many places, there is no such distinction between carols.

Christmas Carols through the Years

In the sixteenth century, the reformation movement started to gain prominence, under the guidance of Martin Luther. At this time, there was a split in the Catholic Church, leading to the formation of new religious communities. The reformation movement was carried out, primarily to 'reform' the Church and banish those practices, which were not considered essential to the religion. Under these conditions, Christmas carols too were considered non-essential. Thus they began to lose their popularity in the community, although the carols themselves were not banned by any of the prominent leaders associated with the movement.

Although Christmas carols lost most of their charm in urban settings, they survived among the rural communities, albeit on a small scale. In the nineteenth century, Christmas carols again started to gain prominence. However, since most of the traditional carols had been lost, new ones were composed to take their place.

To ensure that the carols were not forgotten again, most of them began to appear in print format. The earliest record of the carols is in 'Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern'. William B. Sandys compiled these carols and the first edition was published in 1833. The records were subsequently modified and printed as further editions.

In modern times, carols still form a big part of Christmas celebrations. They have managed to retain their distinctive sound and are integral to making people get into the holiday spirit. Carols remind people that it is time for them to celebrate and 'jingle all the way'.

Do you sing carols at Christmas time? How do you feel when you hear Christmas carols? Which is your favourite carol? To share your views and experiences, click here.

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