The Origins of Christmas Carols
I'm taking a break for a few weeks from sharing my experiences with Guillain Barre Syndrome to celebrate the holiday season. To that end I give you the following.
We sing them every year! We’ve sung them all our lives! As Thanksgiving ushered in the Holiday Season, we began to hear their familiar strains on the radio and in department stores. As the days of December pass, we hear them more frequently – in pageants, programs and even by carolers who keep their tradition alive. Wherever we hear them, we find ourselves singing along! The carols of Christmas are the golden threads of the Season’s festive tapestry that actually turn on the Christmas spirit in our hearts.
But, as with so many familiar things, carols are such a basic part of our lives and our Christmas history that we often take them for granted. We hum them and hear them year after year, but we hardly ever think about the significance of the words or the origin of the lovely melodies. We can actually overlook the fact that somebody wrote these wonderful songs, and as a consequence, we miss much of their magic. Today we explore the meaning and the stories behind just a few of our favorites.
In their earliest beginnings, carols really had nothing to do with Christmas – or even with Christianity, for that matter. The melodies were originally written to accompany an ancient dance form called the circle dance which was associated with fertility rites and pagan festivities in the medieval Celtic countries of Europe. As the Christian Church established itself in these areas, the familiar melodies and rhythms of carols found their way into Christian meetings and celebrations. But because the songs had such pagan roots, the Church was very uneasy about them for a long time. In fact, a Church Council in the mid-Seventh Century explicitly forbade Christians to sing carols, and the Church continued to frown on carols well into the Twelfth Century. (See, kids, the old fogies have always been against hip music!)
As the strictness of medieval Christianity began to soften, a kind of renaissance took place and carols merged with folk songs that were the Pop songs of the day – the songs that were whistled or sung by ordinary people. History credits Saint Francis of Assisi with bringing about a new interest in the feast of the Nativity and the Babe in Bethlehem. The priests in St. Francis’ order developed a style of religious folk song called a lauda. Laudas had happy, joyful dance rhythms that were so catchy and memorable that the song form soon spread across Fourteenth Century Europe. The religious lauda got mixed together with a popular pagan custom called wassailing, in which people sang from door to door to drive away evil spirits and drank to the health of those they visited. What evolved from the marriage of wassailing and the lauda was the custom of caroling, which is still so much a part of our Christmases some seven centuries later.
By the Seventeenth Century it was clear that everyone was having entirely too much fun! So the Grinch – otherwise known as the Puritan English Parliament – decided to abolish Christmas altogether! That’s right….not only did the carols get the axe, but the entire Christmas Holiday was eliminated. People who continued to celebrate the birth of Christ with happy and lighthearted carol singing were actually accused of witchcraft and risked imprisonment or death! It took several dark and gloomy decades before the prohibition against carol singing was lifted and people again began to write and sing carols freely. The popularity of the carol increased rapidly throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, and it was during this time period that many of our favorite carols were created.
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