Caroling, Caroling – The History of Caroling


How did it all start, you ask?  Well, let me tell you.  It all began about a few thousand years ago when pagan songs were sung to celebrate the Winter Solstice, around December 22, while dancing around stone circles.  A carol, also called a “noel,” actually refers to a dance or song of praise and joy, and used to be written for all four of the seasons;  however, the Christmas season has been the only one where the tradition survives.

A new tradition was adopted by Saint Francis of Assisi when, in 1223, he began doing his Nativity Plays in Italy.  Songs or “canticles” were sung which would tell the storyline of the play.  These choruses were often sung in Latin, but more typically they were sung in the native language of the audience so that they could join in the singing.  These new carols spread to Spain, Germany, France and other parts of Europe.  One of the early carols, “I Saw Three Ships,” was typically sung by minstrels in various home settings and where the words were changed according to the local setting in which it was sung.

In England, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in 1647.  The carols survived, however, as people continued to sing them, but in secret!  Carols remained sparsley sung until the Victorian times, when Davis Gilbert and William Sandys began to gather together old Christmas music from the English villages.

Many orchestras and choirs at this time were being organized in the cities, and people wanted Christmas songs to sing too, so carols once again became popular.  To meet the popular demand, many new carols, such as “Good King Wenceslas,” were written during the Victorian period.  New carol services then became popular along with singing carols out in public on the streets — “Here We Come A-Wassailing”!

The traditional carols we sing have a rich history.  For example, the music and words to “Adeste Fideles,” a.k.a. “O Come All Ye Faithful,” originated in the mid 18th century — with the words going back possibly as far as the 13th century!  Carols such as “The First Noel'” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “I Saw Three Ships” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” were in William B. Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833.  Composers like Arthur Sullivan helped to revitalize the Christmas carol, and it was during this time that my favorite, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” and “Good King Wenceslas” became popular.

Our heritage includes the oldest traditional tunes, such as another one of my favorites, “The Holly and the Ivy,” dating back to the Middle Ages, and our more modern Christmas carols, such as the carols written by Alfred Burt (1920-1954).  Just the same, all carols are always well received, cherished, and performed regularly in both sacred as well as secular settings.  Click here to see a complete collection of the Alfred Burt carols. For more Alfred Burt titles, click here.

Some Interesting Facts:

  • Did you know that in some countries, if Christmas carols are played before December, or after Christmas Day, it is considered to be extremely bad luck?
  • Did you know that carols have often been based on medieval chord patterns which gives them their uniquely characteristic sound?
  • Tunes such as “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Away in a Manger” and “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” were written in the U.S.?
  • One of the most popular Christmas carols among all age groups and around the world, “Jingle Bells,” copyrighted under the name “One Horse Open Sleigh,” was not written as a Christmas tune initially?  It was actually written by James Lord Pierpoint in 1850 as a Thanksgiving song!
  • “Silent Night” is so popular that it has been translated into 140 or so languages around the world?  In fact, the song was sung simultaneously in French, English and German by troops during the Christmas truce of 1914, as it was one carol that soldiers on both sides of the front line knew!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from all of the staff here at J.W. Pepper!

Karen DeSimone
Karen DeSimone
Karen DeSimone is a graduate of Immaculata College with a Bachelor degree in Music Education and a certificate in Elementary Education. She also has done graduate work in Elementary Education through West Chester University.


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