History of Christmas Carols

Christmas carol song sheet

The Christmas Carol like many traditions around Christmas time can be traced back to Pagan times. During the Winter Solstice, Europeans before the birth of Jesus danced around stone circles and sang songs. In fact the word carol has its origins in the medieval word from French and Anglo-Norman, to mean a dance song or a circle dance with singing as was common in Pagan times.

It was not until 129AD that the first recorded carol was sung. A bishop from Rome proclaimed that the song ‘Angel’s Hymn’ should be sung. But the first dedicated carol for Christmas was first written in 4th Century. They would have been written in Latin and one of the first was Veni redemptor gentium, composed by Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan. The oldest surviving carol still being sung in some churches is Prudentius’ Of the Father’s Love Begotten or in Latin Corde natus ex Parentis.

The development of the modern Christmas Carol has been credited to a monk in the 12th Century called Adam of St. Victor, who started to write carols that would be close to the carols of today. But with the introduction of the Nativity by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th Century, carols started to become more popular.

In England a chaplain from Shropshire, John Awdlay is credited with the carols of Christmas in 1426. They were popular with the forerunners of Carol Singers, the wassailers, who would move from house to house singing the carols. At this stage carols had not become synonyms with the church and completely associated with Christmas. Carols up until this point were also sang at other events during the year, like the winter harvest.

In Europe carols saw a decline during the Reformation and in the UK were banned by the Puritans. It was not until the Victorian period that there was resurgence in popularity. Much credit is given to William Sandys and Davis Gilbert for the re-introduction of the carols. They collected many old Christmas songs and music from around England. Gilbert published a book in 1823 called Some Ancient Christmas Carols. In the publication are some now well known carols, arguably the most famous are Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night and The First Nowel That The Angel Did Say (also known as The First Noel).

During the Victorian period many of the popular carols of today were written:
1843 – O Come all ye Faithful
1848 – Once in Royal David’s City
1851 – See Amid the Winters Snow
1853 – Good King Wenceslas
1868 – O Little Town of Bethlehem
1883 – Away in a Manger

The most famous of all Christmas carols, Stille Nacht or Silent Night was first performed in Nikolaus-Kirche, Oberndorf, Austria on December 24, 1818 and written in German by Joseph Mohr. This carol has stood the test of time and has been translated into 44 languages and has been recorded by over 300 artists and has been in many soundtracks.

Arguably the most famous Carol service is that held at King’s College, Cambridge. The Nine Lessons and Carols, has been held on Christmas Eve since 1918. It is broadcasted live around the world by the BBC.