The history of Christmas carols is not very detailed, however, we do have some basic information that has been passed on through the ages regarding their origin.
It is still disputed by many historians and music specialists as to when or where they originated from, but there seems to be substantial evidence that the first set of carols date back to 4th century Rome, as hymns with a Latin text. During this time and over the next six or seven centuries these hymns were looked upon as Pagan songs and were sung generally at Winter Solstice celebrations.
For many years carols were only ever written in Latin and because a lot of people simply couldn’t understand them, they didn’t become very popular. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the Christmas carol started to develop and become more popular within societies and Christianity.
St. Francis Assisi played a major part in the development of the carol with the introduction of his Nativity plays in Italy. Songs within these plays were sung to narrate the story and were often performed in a language other than Latin so that people could understand and even join in. This style of music soon became increasingly popular and rapidly spread throughout Europe.
It is thought that the word ‘carol’ – as we know it now – originates from the French word ‘caroler’. This is interpreted as dancing in a circle, or joyful dancing accompanied by music. In France within the 12th century if you were ‘to carole’, you would be known to be singing and dancing, proclaiming the coming of Spring.
Within the 15h century the carol started to become internationally accepted as a song related to Christmas, and new carols around this time were being based upon the story of Mary and Jesus. Throughout England, carols were often only sung by wassailers who went from home to home performing in the streets, and were sung not only at Christmas, but at Harvest time as well. There were still no performances that we know of within the Church and it was quite some time until they were specifically associated with Christmas and the birth of Jesus.
After the Reformation, however, carols became increasingly popular, especially within the Protestant churches located with Northern Europe.
Then, in 1647, Oliver Cromwell banned the singing of Christmas carols along with the celebration of Christmas. Although quite a few people carried on singing them in secret, the Christmas carol pretty much died out until the Victorian era, at which time they became extremely popular again in England and other parts of northern Europe. The majority of carols written around this time, such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, are the traditional carols that you still hear choirs and congregations singing in churches and concerts today.
The video below shows a performance of Ding Dong Merrily on High, by Nottingham Trent University’s Chamber Choir.
Matthew Hopkins, Director of Music at Nottingham Trent University
To speak with Matthew directly, please call Nottingham Trent University’s Press Office on 0115 848 8785 or email firstname.lastname@example.org