Like many other Christmas Traditions, Christmas Carols did not originate within Christianity but were adopted into the celebration.
The first songs that were sung around the Winter solstice had pagan origins and were often sun at celebrations in which the participants danced around stone circles. These songs were sung during every season, but only the singing of songs around the Winter Solstice survived.
After the founding of Christianity, the Winter Solstice became a time in which Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus, and soon, the songs that were once sung during the pagan holiday became Christianized.
Christmas Carol Origins
The word "carol" means celebration, so when we say "Christmas Carol," We are really saying "Christmas Celebration!" This is fitting as Christmas is such a wonderful time of year that we take time to spend with family and remember the birth of Jesus.
Christians use this time to celebrate the coming of the Savior and remember why He came from Heaven to Earth.
After Jesus had returned to Heaven and the Church had been founded, the new Christians began a time of explosive growth and persecution. Despite all that the Roman Empire could do, the church continued to grow larger throughout the empire, and as it grew, the songs that had once been sung during the Winter Solstice were either changed or ignored in favor of Christian ones.
In 129 AD, A Roman Bishop said that a song called "Angel's Hymn" should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. However, this song and others like it were written in Latin, and as the Roman Empire fell, so did their language. Latin would become the language of the educated, and many normal people did not read or speak it. This would lead to a decrease in Christmas celebrations, and by the Middle Ages, most people did not celebrate Christmas at all.
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi began to put on Nativity Plays in Italy. These plays would once again spark interest in Christmas and would lead to the revitalization of Christmas songs or carols. St. Francis made the celebration accessible for normal people as the plays were often done in their native language rather than Latin. This renaissance would spread across Europe, and soon, most European countries sang their own Christmas Carols in their own language.
One of the earliest carols was written in 1410 but does not survive today. We know it was a Christmas Carol about Mary and Jesus meeting the different people of Bethlehem. Many carols during this time were fictional songs loosely based on the Bible story. They were usually sung in homes rather than churches, and traveling singers would often spread these songs to new regions.
At the time of Colonial America, Christmas Carols saw another change. Why Christmas writes:
When the Puritans came to power in England in the 1640s, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped. However, the carols survived as people still sang them in secret. Carols remained mainly unsung until Victorian times, when two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected lots of old Christmas music from villages in England. Carols were sung as folk songs in places like pubs, but they often weren't thought of as 'proper' or 'nice' songs by the middle or upper classes. (Singing carols in pubs still happens today, and there are some very famis carol sings pubs in the north of England, especially in North Derbyshire and South Yorkshire.)
Before carol singing in places like churches became popular, there were sometimes official carol singers called 'Waits.' These were bands of people led by important local leaders (such as council leaders) who had the only power in the towns and villages to take money from the public (if others did this, they were sometimes charged as beggars!). They were called 'Waits' because they sang on Christmas Eve (This was sometimes known as 'watch night' or 'wait night' because the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them.), when the Christmas celebrations began.
Also, at this time, many orchestras and choirs were being set up in the cities of England, and people wanted Christmas songs to sing, so carols once again became popular in churches and concert halls. Many new carols, such as 'Good King Wenceslas,' were also written in the Victorian period.
New carols services were created and became popular, as did the custom of singing carols in the streets. Both of these customs are still popular today! One of the most popular types of Carols services is Carols by Candlelight services. At this service, the church is only lit by candlelight, and it feels very Christmassy! Carols by Candlelight services are held in countries all over the world.
Now, Christmas Carols are common throughout the United States and Great Britain. It seems like every popular music artist comes out with at least one or more Christmas albums throughout their career and tries to make their mark on the Christmas Carol canvas.
Throughout the 20th century, Christmas Carols took on a whole new meaning.
Christmas Carollers could be seen singing at their neighbor's houses. Well-known artists such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and others sang new versions of old classics or sang new songs that would become embedded into American culture.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, and despite the holiday being ultra-commercialized, many families still gather around a Christmas Tree with a piano or guitar and sing the familiar classics that their grandparents grew up hearing.