The Rise and Fall of the Christmas Carol

The last 200 years has been a real caroling hey-day.

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Supri / Reuters

Hundreds of Indonesian children dressed in Santa Claus costumes sing along to Christmas carols in Jakarta.

As you gather your closest friends and family for a bit of caroling this season — you actually carol, right? — you may not worry about the history of the songs. Of course, that’s exactly the type of thing we fret about.

Okay, so things aren’t crystal clear on the caroling front as, sadly, there hasn’t been a deluge of scholarly research done on its origins, but all signs point to caroling as we know it originating in Europe, likely England, somewhere around the 1400s. Plus, do we really care if it was 1328 or 1510? Sure, there were Christmas carols as early as the fourth century, but those were all in Latin. Then, the themes focused exclusively on the Nativity story.

While the word carol comes from Old English and French words meaning a joyful song and is often coupled with dancing, the word quickly became associated with religious joy. The Christmas theme of the carols took over when the singing of carols during the Winter Solstice combined with the idea of singing about saints, especially Mary.

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As carols trended more and more to religion, they took off in popularity in the 1400s as the musical art was catching on and turning mainstream because no longer were the songs confined to just Latin. While these carols still had a Nativity focus, they also started to branch out to include songs about the life of Jesus. Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi often gets credit for giving rise to the popular carols of the time.

Alas, we do know that carols took a nosedive in the 16th century when the Puritans came to power and opted for plenty of chanting and less joyful singing. In fact, most of the carols of the day were lost.

But that downward spiral of caroling roared back to life in the 1800s with “waits,” a group of people who would sing carols on Christmas Eve, kicking off the Christmas celebrations with their own joyful noise. Couple that nifty tradition with the rise of orchestras and choirs, carols grew popular again and new carols started to appear.

The rise of the carols continued during that time, with such songs as “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (1833) and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (1833) coming from W. Sandys. From there, as secularization grew in the 1900s, the style and theme of carols only expanded.

Now, armed with a bit of history, let your lungs do the talking.

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