The History of the Christmas Carol

Anna WentlentBy Anna Wentlent
Managing Editor, School Choral Publications

Not a holiday season goes by that we musicians are not involved in a performance of some kind, whether it be a professional concert, school performance, church pageant, or sing-a-long around the piano at home. Undoubtedly, carols will form the bulk of the repertoire. More than any other time of year, the holidays are distinguished by music. We have a shared repertoire of music that is known and sung by people of all ages and ethnicities.

Hymns written specifically for the holiday of Christmas first appeared in fourth-century Rome. These were Latin statements of Church doctrine, such as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” which is still sung in churches today. In the twelfth century, Adam of St. Victor, a Parisian monk, began to derive music from popular songs, introducing something a bit closer to the traditional Christmas carol that we know today.

Under the influence of Francis of Assisi, a tradition of popular Christmas carols in native languages began to develop in England, France, Germany, and Italy. The first documented appearance of English carols is seen in the work of chaplain John Awdlay, who lists twenty-five “caroles of Cristemas” that were sung by groups of “wassailers” who went from house to house. Derived from traditional drinking and folk songs, these songs were often accompanied by dancing (in fact, the word “carol” comes from an Old French word meaning “circle dance”) and were probably written for many important celebrations, such as New Year and the harvest, in addition to Christmas.

Originally, carols were festive, up-tempo, and followed similar Medieval chord patterns; classic examples of this are “Good King Wenceslas” and “The Holly and the Ivy.” Amateurs outside easily sang them. But by the Victoria era, carols were being sung in churches and performed by local orchestras and choirs. This time period is when many of the carols that we sing today were first written and published. New carols in varying styles were added to the repertoire, such as Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night.”

“Silent Night” was first performed on Christmas Eve in 1818 in the small town of Oberndorf, Austria. The young priest of the parish church, Father Joseph Mohr, brought his lyrics to organist Franz Gruber just before the evening service and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment. Since that first performance, “Silent Night” has become one of the most well-known Christmas carols of all time. During the World War I Christmas truce, an unofficial ceasefire on Christmas Eve in 1914, it was one of the carols that British and German soldiers sang together between the trenches, each in their own language.

Today carols continue to be written and performed in both sacred and secular settings. We hope that you will include one or two (or more) on your program this holiday season, whether traditional or entirely new. Who knows what piece will be the next “Silent Night?”

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One response to “The History of the Christmas Carol

  1. nice article – it’s something I’ll share with the choirs when we start preparing Advent & Christmas Music.

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