The History of Christmas Carols

For us, carol singing is one of the most magical parts of Christmas – it brings people together and there’s just something very special about the distant sounds of “Silent Night” in the snow. But where did carols come from?

Carols began in Europe as pagan songs, not sung at Christmas, but to celebrate the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year, usually around the 22nd of December) as people danced around stone circles. They used to be written and sung for all seasons, but only the tradition of Christmas time carolling survived.

Pagan solstace celebrations were taken over by early Christians, who gave people Christian songs to sing instead. The first Christmas carols were written in latin, so were not very popular as most people could not understand them – the entire tradition of Christmas nearly died out by the middle ages as a result! Cue the intervention of St. Francis of Assisi, who started putting on nativity plays in Italy – the plays were filled with ‘canticles’, songs about Christmas that fitted the storylines. These were normally sung in a language that everyone could understand, so people joined in! The new carols soon spread all over Europe.

When carols became popular again, they were usually sung in family homes, not in churches. Minstrels personalised the words and spread them all over the place, so people local to different places all learned different words.

A little later (in 1647), a man called Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans ruled England. They banned Christmas carols all together, but people carried on singing them in secret. The secret was kept safe until the Victorian times, when two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected lots of old Christmas music from villages all over England and got people to sing proud and loud again!

Carol Singers

Official carol singers called “Waits” used to sing Christmas carols only on Christmas eve, as this night used to be known as “waitnight” as it is when the shepherds were believed to watch their sheep when the angels appeared to them. If citizens tried to sing carols for money, they’d be charged as beggars!

Soon enough, the joyous right to sing carols freely was given to everyone – carol services became popular, as did carol singing on the streets. Both of these traditions are still popular today! Why not get your friends and families involved this year? If you need something to get you into the Christmas mood, check out The BBC’s A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve – Becky’s mum used to watch it while peeling the carrots every year!

Here’s a lovely Christmas carol to get you started!

Merry Christmas!