History of Christmas Carols


Who doesn't love some Christmas carols? | Image credit to Noam Galai of Getty Images for JetBlack.

Often depicted wearing Victorian-era clothes and belting “God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Christmas carolers are a frequent trope in Hallmark Christmas specials. But if you’ve ever wondered about the history of Christmas carols themselves, they actually date back centuries.

The traditional carols that are still sung today are rooted in the carol revival of the 1800s, dating from music that existed centuries before.

From the 4th to the 14th centuries, Christianity spread across Europe. The first carols were attributed to Franciscan friars, who followed the rule of Saint Francis of Assisi. These carols were sung while singers danced in a circle with their hands linked together.

Yet many carols we sing today, despite their antique origins, are relatively new, dating or deriving from the 15th century. The best-preserved aspect of English medieval music is thus Christmas carols.

The Oxford Book of Carols, a definitive anthology published in 1928 and written by Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, dates the earliest carols back to the year 1400. That was around the beginning of the Renaissance in England. After the English Renaissance, carols became immensely popular.

The Oxford Book of Carols features what the writers considered the best carols. The carols are sourced from the British Isles, France, Germany, and other European countries.

English historian Ronald Hutton asserts that the dances that went along with early carols faded from popularity as people got “bored” of them.

In addition to Christmas carols, pre-modern people sang carols for every season, including May carols and harvest carols.

The oldest surviving English carol, according to Hutton, is not easily defined.

“If you go for the component parts, I think it’s While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night, which has a 16th-century tune and 17th-century words. On the other hand, they’re not put together securely until the 19th century. So, if you’re going for the oldest carol that’s still popular, which is complete, it’s probably O Come All Ye Faithful, both the tune and the words of which seem to be securely put together by the end of the 18th century,” said Hutton.

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