STORY BEHIND THE SONGS: The history of Christmas carols
Every year, as people anticipate the arrival of Christmas, the sounds of the season fill the air. There is no music more beautiful or beloved than these songs of Christmas, handed down from generation to generation, around the world, to celebrate the birth of Christ.
As we prepare for Christmas, shopping and decorating fill our days, while parties and renewing old friendships bring us excitement.
But always in the background — in the malls, in stores, on the radio, and in churches — choirs, children and carolers sing the music that serves to remind us of the reason for this season.
Christmas songs are one of the oldest traditions of the holiday, and these memorable sounds help recapture the true spirit of Christmas.
Some believe that angels sang the first Christmas carol on the night when Christ was born. “Gloria in excelsis deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis — Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of goodwill.”
Many sources say that Christmas music began as litanies, Latin works used as musical prayers in church services. Around AD 129, Telesphorus, the Bishop of Rome, urged his people to sing “Angels Hymn” to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. Comas of Jerusalem wrote an early Christmas hymn in AD 760 for the Greek Orthodox Church. By the beginning of the fifth century, priests strolled their parishes on Christmas Eve to sing these early Christmas songs.
Others, however, believe the music began in medieval France, on a countryside where shepherds would call out “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” to each other on Christmas Eve.
Whatever the origin, soon composers all over Europe began writing carols, but since they were written and sung in Latin, most people could not understand them.
All this changed in the early 13th century when St. Francis of Assisi, known as "The Father of Caroling,” introduced Christmas songs in church services in Italy for the first time — and true Christmas carols were officially born. Until this time, it was only church leaders who could sing these songs, but now the congregation was urged to join in.
In Assisi’s Nativity plays, which began in 1223, actors sang songs that described the scenes in the plays. Although the choruses were sometimes in Latin, the songs were usually written in the language that people could understand. The actors composed Christmas carols to sing during their Nativity plays and, later, they would walk through the streets still singing.
It didn't take long for these plays to spread to France, Spain and the rest of Europe. The tradition of singing Christmas songs in native languages became well established.
A significant person in the history of English Christmas carols during this time was John Awdlay. In 1426, he listed in a work 25 “caroles of Cristemas” sung by wassailers as they went from house to house. The earliest known English Christmas carol, written in the early 1400s, told the story of Mary and Joseph and the people they met in Bethlehem.
It was during the 1400s in Renaissance Italy, during the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, that the lighter, more joyous Christmas songs were introduced. Wandering minstrels, who went from castles to hamlets, performed these carols. Later, villages had their own bands, and orchestras and choirs were being organized in cities in England.
Some of these first carolers were known as Waits, or night watchmen, who patrolled the streets guarding against fires. They sang to pass the night hours. During the Christmas season, they added folk carols to their repertoire to entertain the citizens. Christmas caroling had been created.
However, the caroling and other Christmas celebrations were abruptly stopped when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647. From 1649 to 1660, carols were banned in England, but people still sang them in secret, and the music survived.
When Protestants fled Europe under pressure from the Catholic Church, they took their carols with them to their new homes around the world, including America. Sources say that in 1649, a minister, John de Brebeur, wrote the first American Christmas carol, “Jesus is Born.”
During the Victorian era in England in the late 1800s, people once again wanted to sing the songs of Christmas, and many choirs and orchestras once again performed the music of the season. Carol services were created in the churches, and caroling became a Christmas ritual, not only in Europe, but also in America.
Excerpt from "The Sounds of Christmas" by Pam Griffin available at cedarfort.com.