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Why do we sing Christmas carols?

A page from an old Christmas carol hymn book with the words 'Choice carols for Christmas Holidays' written in various old scripts.
A Christmas hymn book, ‘Choice carols for Christmas holydays’ from the library at Townend, Cumbria | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

The birth of Jesus has long been celebrated in song, and Christmas carols are so well loved now that they’re at the very heart of seasonal tradition. But many of the texts, tunes and conventions of today’s Christmas carols owe more to the innovations and tastes of the 19th and early 20th centuries than they do to the medieval period.

What is a carol?

Strictly speaking, the original English ‘carol’ was a musical setting of a strophic poem beginning with a refrain (called a ‘burden’), which was repeated after each stanza.

Early written sources date from around the 15th century suggest the carol was a product of the sophisticated musical culture of the late Middle Ages. They began as dance melodies and were eventually adopted as a model for other sacred choral works.

Medieval carols

The texts of many medieval carols focus on the Virgin Mary or on the birth of Christ but they were not by definition used in Church (except perhaps in certain processions). Instead they were celebratory and devotional works. Many medieval carols adopted texts containing both Latin and English text and some of these lyrics have subsequently been used by more recent composers.

After the Reformation, this carol tradition became dormant and was swept away by the more vernacular or ‘folk’ music of the period.

The 19th-century hymn revival

In the 19th century, the restoration of the church choir and the revival of the hymn by John Mason Neale, Thomas Helmore and others was accompanied by a renewed interest in setting old carol texts to new music, producing more texts and tunes in a similar style and adopting the conventions of the Victorian hymn.

Victorian Christmas traditions

Many familiar and ‘traditional’ Christmas carols – such as O Come, All Ye Faithful – were written in this period. These new traditions sought to build on medieval practice. For instance, the famous Service of Nine Lessons and Carols was first invented at Truro Cathedral in 1880, before being developed at King’s College, Cambridge from 1918, after the end of the First World War. This service broadly follows the pattern of nine readings and responsories at Matins during the Middle Ages.

Hymns ancient and modern

The surprisingly modern carol service tradition at King’s and elsewhere has done much to popularise the 19th-century repertoire, in addition to commissioning new works subsequently taken up by choirs around the world. As Christmas evolved into a family-centred celebration in the Victorian period, Christmas music entered the home through song books which collected repertoire both old and new.

Christmas carols today

Christmas carols are now just as much a staple of the non-religious family celebration as much as the Church’s celebration of the feast. A great appetite remains for singing and listening to these carols. Perhaps we want to feel connected to the nostalgic ideal of Christmas, and perhaps, also, to participate in a celebration which for many has become disassociated from its origin.

During the festive season, some National Trust places host Christmas carol concerts.

A night time scene of a chalkboard sign on a gate advertising a carol concert next to a path lit by fairy lights that leads to the ruins of Corfe Castle
Carol concert at Corfe Castle, Dorset | © National Trust Images/Jon Bish

This article contains contributions from Matthew Salisbury. Matthew is a lecturer in Music at University and Worcester Colleges, Oxford, and National Liturgy and Worship Adviser to the Church of England.

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