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A Christmas carol (also called a noël) is a carol (song or hymn) whose lyrics are on the theme of Christmastide or the winter season in general, and which are traditionally sung in the period immediately surrounding the holiday. Christmas carols may be regarded as a subset of the broader category of Christmas music.
The first specifically Christmas hymns for Christians that we know of appear in fourth century Rome. Latin hymns such as Veni redemptor gentium, written by Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, were austere statements of the theological doctrine of the Incarnation in opposition to Arianism. Corde natus ex Parentis (Of the Father's love begotten) by the Spanish poet Prudentius (d. 413) is still sung in some churches today.
In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Christmas "Sequence" or "Prose" was introduced in North European monasteries, developing under Bernard of Clairvaux into a sequence of rhymed stanzas. In the twelfth century the Parisian monk Adam of St. Victor began to derive music from popular songs, introducing something closer to the traditional Christmas carol.
In the thirteenth century, in France, Germany, and particularly, Italy, under the influence of Francis of Assisi a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs in the native language developed. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who lists twenty five "caroles of Cristemas", probably sung by groups of 'wassailers', who went from house to house. The songs we know specifically as carols were originally communal songs sung during celebrations like harvest tide as well as Christmas. It was only later that carols begun to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas.
Carols gained in popularity after the Reformation in the countries where Protestant churches gained prominence (as well-known Reformers like Martin Luther authored carols and encouraged their use in worship), this was the consequence of the fact that the Lutheran reformation warmly welcomed music.
"Adeste Fideles" ("O Come all ye faithful") appears in its current form in the mid-18th century, although the words may have originated in the thirteenth century. The origin of the tune is disputed. The first appearance in print of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", "The First Noel", "I Saw Three Ships" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" was in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833) by William Sandys. Composers like Arthur Sullivan helped to repopularize the carol, and it is this period that gave rise to such favorites as "Good King Wenceslas" and "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear", a New England carol written by Edmund H. Sears and Richard S. Willis.
Today carols are regularly sung at Christian religious services. Some compositions have words which are clearly not of a religious theme, but are often still referred to as "carols". For example, the sixteenth century song "A Bone, God Wot!" appears to be a wassailing song (which is sung during drinking or while requesting ale), but is described in the British Library's Cottonian Collection as a Christmas carol.
It is often difficult to draw a distinction between a Christmas carol and a Christmas song. To be sung by a church choir or sung in the street by amateurs, a song would have to have a fairly rapid, regular beat, which would therefore exclude a meandering crooning song such as "White Christmas". A country music song such as "Blue Christmas" might qualify, but in this case it would have to be adopted by many choirs, over many years to be truly "vernacular", and so far it has failed to gain wide acceptance. The Concise Oxford Dictionary is more generous, as it defines a carol as a "religious song...associated with Christmas". If Christmas Carols are played before December, or after Christmas Day (including on Boxing Day), it is considered to be extremely bad luck in many countries.
Carols for dancing
It is not clear whether the word carol derives from the French "carole" or the Latin "carula" meaning a circular dance. In any case the dancing seems to have been abandoned quite early. The typical 3/4 (waltz) time would tend to support the latter meaning.
Traditionally, carols have often been based on medieval chord patterns, and it is this that gives them their uniquely characteristic musical sound. Some carols like "Personent hodie", "Good King Wenceslas", and "The Holly and the Ivy" can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages, and are among the oldest musical compositions still regularly sung.
Compositions continue to be written that become popular carols. For example, many of the carols written by Alfred Burt are sung regularly in both sacred and secular settings, and are among the better-known modern Christmas carols.
Church and liturgical use of Christmas carols
Almost all the well-known carols were not sung in church until the second half of the 19th century. Hymns Ancient and Modern 1861–1874 included several carols. Isaac Watts, the "father of English hymnody", composed "Joy to the World" which has become a popular Christmas carol even though it is widely believed that Watts did not write it to be sung only at Christmas.
Charles Wesley wrote texts for at least three Christmas carols, of which the best known was originally entitled "Hark! How All the Welkin Rings", later edited to "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing". In 1840 Felix Mendelssohn wrote a tune in a cantata; William H. Cummings adapted this tune to fit Wesley's words and this combination first appeared in "Hymns Ancient and Modern" in 1861.
"Silent Night" comes from Austria. The carol was first performed in the Nikolaus-Kirche (Church of St. Nicholas) in Oberndorf, Austria on December 24, 1818. Mohr had composed the words much earlier, in 1816, but on Christmas Eve brought them to Gruber and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for the church service. The first English translation was in 1871 where it was published in a Methodist hymnal.
Episodes described in Christmas carols
Several different Christmas episodes, apart from the birth of Jesus itself, are described in Christmas carols, such as:
- The Annunciation, for example "Gabriel's Message"
- The Census of Quirinius, a rare subject, but touched on in "On a Day When Men Were Counted" by Daniel Thambyrajah Niles (1964)
- The Annunciation to the shepherds, for example "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks"
- The Adoration of the shepherds, for example the Czech carol "Nesem Vám Noviny" (translated into English as "Come, All Ye Shepherds")
- The Star of Bethlehem, for example, "Star of the East"
- The Visit of the Magi, for example "We Three Kings"
- The Massacre of the Innocents, for example the "Coventry Carol"
In addition, some carols describe Christmas-related events which are of a religious nature, but not directly related to the birth of Jesus. For example:
- "Good King Wenceslas", based on a legend about Saint Wenceslaus helping a poor man on December 26 (the Feast of Stephen)
- "Ding Dong Merrily on High" and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day", reflecting on the practice of ringing church bells at Christmas
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Nineteenth century antiquarians rediscovered early carols in museums. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, about 500 have been found. Some are wassailing songs, some are religious songs in English, some are in Latin, and some are "macaronic" — a mixture of English and Latin. Since most people did not understand Latin, the implication is that these songs were composed for church choristers, or perhaps for an educated audience at the Royal courts. The most famous survival of these early macaronic carols is the "The Boar's Head". Allegedly, it has been sung at Christ Church Cambridge since 1607. The tradition of singing carols outside of church influence, early in the nineteenth century is best illustrated by Thomas Hardy's novel "Under the Greenwood Tree" (1872). In England and other countries, such as Poland (kolęda), Romania (colinde) and Bulgaria (koledari), there is a tradition of Christmas caroling (earlier known as wassailing), in which groups of singers travel from house to house, singing carols, for which they are often rewarded with gifts, money, mince pies, or a glass of an appropriate beverage. Money collected in this way is now normally given to charity.
Singing carols in church was instituted on Christmas Eve 1880 in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, (see article on Nine Lessons and Carols), and now seen in churches all over the world. The songs that were chosen for singing in church omitted the wassailing carols, and the words "hymn" and "carol" were used almost interchangeably. Shortly before, in 1878, the Salvation Army, under Charles Fry, instituted the idea of playing carols at Christmas, using a brass band. Carols can be sung by individual singers, but are also often sung by larger groups, including professionally trained choirs. Most churches have special services at which carols are sung, generally combined with readings from scripture about the birth of Christ; this is often based on the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge.
Christmas carols in classical music
In the 1680s and 1690s, two French composers incorporated carols into their works. Louis-Claude Daquin wrote 12 noels for organ. Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote a few instrumental versions of noels, plus one major choral work "Messe de minuit pour Noël". Other examples include:
- Ralph Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Christmas Carols, 1912.
- Victor Hely-Hutchinson: Carol Symphony, 1927.
- Benjamin Britten: A Ceremony of Carols (for choir and harp), 1942
- Christina Rossetti's poem "In the Bleak Midwinter" has been set to music by (amongst others) Gustav Holst (1905) and Harold Darke (1911).
- Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki extensively quotes the Christmas carol "Silent Night" in his Second Symphony, nicknamed the Christmas Symphony.
In Austria, Belgium and Germany, Christmas is celebrated by some with children dressing as "The Three Kings", carrying a star on a pole. Going from house to house from New Year's Day to January 6, the children sing religious songs and are called "star singers". They are often rewarded with sweets or money, which is typically given to a local church or charity. "C.M.B" is written in chalk on houses they have visited. Although this is sometimes taken as a reference to the three kings — Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar — it may originally have represented the words Christus mansionem benedicat (Christ bless this house).
Christmas carols by country
Australia and New Zealand
In Australia and New Zealand, where it is the middle of summer at Christmas, there is a tradition of Carols by Candlelight concerts which are held outdoors at night in cities and towns across the country, during the weeks leading up to Christmas. First held in Melbourne, "Carols by Candlelight" is held each Christmas Eve in capital cities and many smaller cities and towns around Australia. Performers at the concerts include opera singers, musical theatre performers and popular music singers. People in the audience hold lit candles and join in singing some of the carols in accompaniment with the celebrities. Similar events are now held all over Australia, usually arranged by churches, municipal councils, or other community groups. They are normally held on Christmas Eve or the Sunday or weekend before Christmas. A similar recent trend in New Zealand is for smaller towns to host their own Carols by Candlelight concerts.
A 16th-century carol, "Ça, Bergers, assemblons nous", was sung aboard Jacques Cartier's ship on Christmas Day in 1535. Dating from the 18th century, "Les Anges dans nos Campagnes" is another famous French carol. The 19th century "Cantique de Noël" (also known as "Minuit, chrétiens", adapted as "O Holy Night in English) is another classic. "Dans cette étable" and "Venez Divin Messie " are also popular Christmas carols. Perhaps the best known traditional French carol, "Il est né, le divin Enfant!", comes from the region of Provence.
In 1554, a collection of French carols, "La Grande Bible des Noëls", was printed in Orléans. Another collection, "Chants des Noëls Anciens et Modernes", was printed by Christophe Ballard (1641–1715), in Paris, in 1703.
Germany and Austria
Some carols familiar in English are translations of German Christmas songs (Weihnachtslieder). Three well-known examples are "Silent Night" ("Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht"), by the Austrians Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr, "Still, Still, Still" ("Still, Still, Still"), an Austrian folksong also from the Salzburg region, and "O Christmas Tree" ("O Tannenbaum"), from a German folksong arranged by Ernst Anschütz.
The tune of "Still, Still, Still" is based on an 1819 melody by Süss, with the original words, slightly changed over time and location, by G. Götsch.
Greece and Cyprus
Greek tradition calls for children to go out with triangles from house to house on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve and Epiphany Eve, and sing the corresponding folk carols, called the Kálanda (Κάλαντα, the word deriving from the Roman calends). There are separate carols for each of the three great feasts, referring respectively to the Nativity, to St. Basil and the New Year, and to the Baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, along with wishes for the household. In addition to the carols for the winter festive season, there are also the springtime or Lenten carols, commonly called the "Carols of Lazarus", sung on the Saturday before Palm Sunday as a harbinger of the Resurrection of Christ to be celebrated a week later.
In older times, caroling children asked for and were given edible gifts such as dried fruit, eggs, nuts or sweets; during the 20th century this was gradually replaced with money gifts — ranging from small change in the case of strangers to considerable amounts in the case of close relatives. Caroling is also done by marching bands, choirs, school students seeking to raise funds for trips or charity, members of folk societies, or merely by groups of well-wishers. Many internationally known carols, e.g. "Silent Night", "O Tannenbaum" or "Jingle Bells", are also sung in Greek translation.
Many carols are regional, being popular in specific regions but unknown in others, whereas some are popular throughout the two countries. Examples of the latter are the Peloponnesian Christmas carol "Christoúgenna, Prōtoúgenna" ("Christmas, Firstmas"), the Constantinopolitan Christmas carol "Kalēn hespéran, árchontes" ("Good evening, lords"), and the New Year's carol "Archimēniá ki archichroniá" ("First of the month, first of the year"). The oldest known carol, commonly referred to as the "Byzantine Carol" (Byzantine Greek: Άναρχος θεός καταβέβηκεν, Ánarkhos Theós katabébēken, "God, who has no beginning, descended"), is linguistically dated to the beginning of the High Middle Ages, ca. 1000 AD; it is traditionally associated with the city of Kotyora in the Pontos (modern-day Ordu, Turkey).
Most carols follow a more or less standard format: they begin by exalting the relevant religious feast, then proceed to offer praises for the lord and lady of the house, their children, the household and its personnel, and usually conclude with a polite request for a treat, and a promise to come back next year for more well-wishing. Almost all the various carols are in the common dekapentasyllabos (15-syllable iamb with a caesura after the 8th syllable) verse, which means that their wording and tunes are easily interchangeable. This has given rise to a great number of local variants, parts of which often overlap or resemble one another in verse, tune, or both. Nevertheless their musical variety remains very wide overall: for example carols from Epirus are strictly pentatonic, in the kind of drone polyphony practised in the Balkans, and accompanied by C-clarinets and fiddles; just across the straits, on Corfu Island, the style is tempered harmonic polyphony, accompanied by mandolins and guitars. Generally speaking, the musical style of each carol closely follows the secular music tradition of each region.
Christmas carols are very popular in Poland, where they have a long history, the oldest dating to the 15th century or earlier.
Spain and Portugal
The villancico (or vilancete, in Portuguese) was a common poetic and musical form of the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America popular from the late fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. With the decline in popularity of the villancicos in the 20th century, the term became reduced to mean merely "Christmas carol". Important composers of villancicos were Juan del Encina, Pedro de Escobar, Francisco Guerrero, Gaspar Fernandes, and Juan Gutiérez de Padilla. Popular Spanish villancicos include "Los pastores a Belén," and "Riu, riu, chiu: El lobo rabioso" and "Los peces en el río". Popular Catalan Christmas carols are "Fum fum fum" and "El noi de la mare".
Basically all Ukrainian Carols (Колядки), some of them centuries old, are associated with the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Ukrainian carol most known to the Western World is the "Carol of the Bells", composed by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, and premiered on December 1916 by a choral group made up of students at Kiev University.
Christmas carols written in the United States range from "Jingle Bells," and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" to "Away in a Manger," "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" and numerous others of varying genres.
- Christmas music
- List of Christmas carols
- List of Christmas/holiday hit singles in the United States
- List of Christmas/holiday hit singles (UK)
- List of non-religious Christmas songs
- Best-selling Christmas/holiday singles in the United States
- Best-selling Christmas/holiday albums in the United States
- Miles, Clement, Christmas customs and traditions, Courier Dover Publications, 1976, ISBN 0-486-23354-5, p.32
- Miles, pp. 31-37
- Miles, pp. 47-48
- Article - Protestant music
- A Bone, God Wot!
- Dudley-Smith, Timothy (1987). A Flame of Love. London: Triangle/SPCK. ISBN 0-281-04300-0.
- BBC Religion & Ethics
- Thomas Wright, Songs and Carols Now First Printed, From a Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century (London: The Percy Society, 1847)
- carol - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
- "Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols". BBC. 16 December 2005.
- (Polish) Roman Mazurkiewicz, Z dziejów polskiej kolędy
- Pope, "Villancico."
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