Why do we sing Christmas carols?
The celebration of the birth of Jesus has long been celebrated in song, and well-loved Christmas carols are now 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 nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than they do to their medieval antecedents.
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.
The carol, whose early written sources date from around the fifteenth century, was a product of the sophisticated musical culture of the late Middle Ages, beginning as a dance melody and eventually adopting the model of other sacred choral works.
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 which contained both Latin and English text; some of these lyrics have subsequently been used by more recent composers.
After the Reformation, this carol tradition became dormant, swept away by the more vernacular or ‘folk’ music of the period.
In the nineteenth century, the restoration of the church choir and the revivification of hymnody by John Mason Neale, Thomas Helmore, and others were 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.
Many familiar and ‘traditional’ Christmas carols, such as O come, all ye faithful, were written in this period. The 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 nineteenth-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 a staple of the secular 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.