The meaning of Christmas invades our hearts, but the images of Christmas quicken our minds: the glorious sights and majestic sounds; the golden fanfares and sparkling lights; the glistening garlands and gracious greenery all combine to enrich our spirits with gladsome, festive excitement.
Some of the season’s symbols speak to its religious roots: the star lighting up a dark sky, the shepherds looking up with fear and wonder, three kings on graceful camels plodding onward looking heavenward; a tired father leading an exhausted donkey bearing a comfortable Madonna; the infant Christ lying cozy, snug and peaceful in a manger. Some visual images speak in a more secular vein: brilliant lights on a city street; candy canes hanging from drooping tinsel, colors of every shade reflected in shining orbs dangling from laden branches; bright paper and fanciful bows encasing mysteries which hold promise of great joy.
Then, to our ears comes the sound of music.
The music of Christmas colors this special time of year brighter than the most brilliant lights. It triggers in each of us our private sense of the season. One melody may awaken within us that deep part still child. Other haunting chords may draw us closer to spirit, or refresh our lagging faith or challenge our commitment. Some wake us, some inspire, some thrill, some irritate, some fill our souls with wonder. Sacred or secular, nothing signals Christmas like the distant sound of a brass quartet presenting that first carol to the accompaniment of teeming crowds and busy streets. Nothing says advent like joining the congregation in that first triumphant hymn of praise and joy celebrating God’s arrival on earth.
While a few majestic oratorios and triumphant cantatas contribute to the soundscape of Christmas–Handel, with his masterpiece “Messiah,” Bach with his “Christmas Oratorio” among them–the season is captured by the simplicity of the melody and message of the Christmas carols. For centuries, in virtually every country choosing to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, timeless carols have emerged, sung in the everyday language of common people. They communicate the wonder of the nativity and joy of the season with clear, unmistakable, straightforward language and melodies.
A sparse few of the world’s great composers through the centuries have contributed to the direct composition of Christmas carols. As a whole, we can say the composition of carols tends to be anonymous, writes William Studwell in his essay collection “The Christmas Carol Reader.” Some may be “the most famous activity of an otherwise obscure person, or the incidental by-product of a famous person.” There are, of course exceptions. These include such luminaries as Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Benjamin Britten and Irving Berlin, but generally, carols are “the overall domain of the obscure,” Studwell writes.
Music at Christmas has made its contribution to the season since the fourth century. These early efforts were hymns sung as part of the worship services of the early church. With a few exceptions, such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which joined the season around the 12th century (although the 900-year-old words and music weren’t paired until the 19th century), very few of these early songs are known today.
While hymns obviously were composed for the church, the origin of the carols actually grew out of secular, even pagan roots. These songs were popular in Greek plays and the Romans’ pagan festival of Saturnalia-which, like Christmas, was celebrated in winter. They were also a big part of village festivals and other celebrations.
Around 1400, the carol evolved into a dance form, possibly in reaction to the repressive nature of the medieval period. In fact, the word carol most likely comes from the Greek word “choros,” meaning dance. This dance influence appears in several well-known carols including “Good King Wenceslaus,” “Deck the Halls,” “The Holly and the Ivy” and others.
Carols were also popular parts of the mystery plays of the Middle Ages. Walter Ehret, in The International Book of Christmas Carols, described these biblical dramatizations as “a complex of pageantry, revelry, piety, and song.” They were usually presented during major church festivals.
Because of the carols’ secular roots, the early church strongly prohibited their use in church services. Outside the church, however, the number of carols written about the nativity dramatically increased.
Saint Francis of Assisi is thought to have been the first to bring carols into formal worship in 1223. While conducting Christmas services, he decided to try a different way to communicate the Incarnation of God to his parish. So, on Christmas Eve, he borrowed some farm animals and various stable items as props, and placed a statue of the infant Christ in a hay-filled manger. He set up the first-ever nativity scene. He placed it in a cave, and, with the Pope’s permission, was allowed to conduct a midnight mass in front of the creche. During the service, friars sang new songs that were far closer to carols in style and content than traditional hymns. This helped pave the way for the inclusion of carols in formal worship.
Studwell has organized his collection of carols according to themes expressed. Some of the carols that depict “Christmas as a Holy Day” are arranged with the following headings:
The Birth of Jesus
- Away in a Manger
- Coventry Carol
- What Child Is This?
Mary and Joseph
- Ave Maria
- Joseph, Dearest Joseph Mine
- Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming
- Angels from the Realms of Glory
- Angels We Have Heard on High
- It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
- The First Nowell
- Shepherd’s Carol
- While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
The “Three Kings”
- As with Gladness Men of Old
- The March of the Three Kings
- We Three Kings of Orient Are
The Nights of Christmas
- O Holy Night
- Silent Night
- There’s a Song in the Air
- O Come All Ye Faithful
- O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
- Love Came Down at Christmas
- Go Tell It on the Mountain
- I Wonder as I Wander
- Mary Had a Baby
- Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn
- Joy to the World
- Good Christian Men Rejoice
The practice of Christmas caroling has been around since the Middle Ages when groups in England would serenade houses with songs. The original carolers were usually poor and hoped to inspire a handout in exchange for their musical gift. It wasn’t until much later that caroling switched to an act of giving rather than receiving.
Perhaps the oldest familiar carol is the 13th century French folk piece, “The March of the Kings.” This gem sounds far more modern than its age would suggest and apparently both words and music and have been hardly altered in its 800-year lifetime.
The 15th and 16th centuries became the ‘golden age’ of the carol. Such timeless songs as “Deck the Halls,” “The First Nowell,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “I Saw Three Ships,” “The Coventry Carol,” and “The Boar’s Head Carol,” (from England), were penned along with “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and possibly “O Christmas Tree” from Germany.
The composition of carols slowed down in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely due to a more conservative church atmosphere. In fact, the secular observance of Christmas was actually banned for several years beginning in 1645 by Puritans in England.
A few carol classics still managed to emerge, including “Wassail Song,” “The 12 Days of Christmas,” “Adeste Fideles” and “Angels We Have Heard On High.”
In the 19th century, literary works such as Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Moore’s ” ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” sparked renewed interest in Christmas carols. This era brought us “Silent Night,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Jingle Bells” and a host of other songs. In addition to these new carols, older carols were being translated and arranged as never before, making this one of the most important periods for Christmas music.
Christians superimposed the coming of Christ on the pagan festival of the “coming of light” which celebrated the winter solstice. So, too, has secular music been a major part of the Christmas season from its earliest inception.
During the 20th century, carols have become far more secular, especially in the United States. While a few modern composers like John Rutter and Alfred Burt have written numerous carols on the religious meaning of the season, most of the recent songs do not draw upon the birth of Christ for their subject matter.
Studwell has organized some of the secular carols under the heading “Christmas as a Holiday” and has grouped them in the following manner:
- Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!
- Sleigh Ride
- Winter Wonderland
- God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen
- Happy Holiday
- We Wish You a Merry Christmas
The Christmas Tree and Holiday Decorations
- The Holly and the Ivy
- It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
- O Christmas Tree
- Carol of the Bells
- Jingle Bells
- Silver Bells
- Here Comes Santa Claus
- Jolly Old Saint Nicholas
- Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
- Carol of the Birds
- The Chipmunk Song
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
- All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth
- The Little Drummer Boy
- The Twelve Days of Christmas
- The Christmas Song
- I’ll be Home for Christmas
- White Christmas
So, year after year after year, the simple, lowly carol casts a long beam of light over and through and around the Christmas season. Its multi-faceted musical messages take many forms and have been contributed by numerous cultures representing all of human history over the past two millennia. What these carols have in common is the season. That about them which particularly touches us says much more about us than about them.
–by John Docter and Robert Docter
Sources: “The Christmas Carol Reader,” by William Studwell; “The International Book of Christmas Carols,” by Walter Ehret.