"His place of birth a solemn angel tells to simple shepherds keeping watch by night; they gladly thither haste, and by a choir of squadron'd angels hear His carol sung." -John Milton, Paradise Lost
From the first angelic choir over Bethlehem, carols have rung joyously through the centuries, sung by peasants and kings alike. Today, one of the surest signs that Christmas is coming is the music of carols, whether heard over a supermarket's sound system, on the radio, played by professional orchestras, performed by church choirs, or sung by schoolchildren. Variations range from acappella solos to rich instrumental renditions, in both classic and modern styles.
The word "carol" may come from the Greek word "choros" meaning "a circling dance," or "carolus", meaning "in a circle", like a carousel, or from a similar word meaning "to accompany the dance." There once was an ancient ring dance that was called a "carole." The earliest known reference to a carol in English literature that uses the word in its modern spelling is dated around 1300. It denotes a round dance in combination with a song. After a time, the dance was evidently dropped and the carol, which told a story, was sung by wandering musicians. The words were in a definite form of uniform stanzas, or verses, with a refrain that began the song and was repeated after each stanza. The "ring" leader sang the stanzas and the listeners joined in on the refrain. The earliest carols celebrated any happy or joyous event. Carols originally had nothing in particular to do with Christmas, and were used as much in the celebration of Easter. Others were actually quite pagan in tone.
Most authorities agree that the birthplace of the true Christmas carol is Italy where, in the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi promoted the idea of singing at the Christmas season. The very first Christmas carol has been traced to a story about St. Francis and some of his followers kneeling at a crib resembling the manger bed of Jesus and singing of the Savior's birth. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with bringing about a new interest in the Nativity and being the originator of the Christmas crèche. The image of the baby lying in a manger surrounded by animals, which was promoted by Francis and his followers, was to feature prominently in many carols. Thereafter, from Italy the carol spread quickly to all those countries where Christianity existed.
Carols were brought into the Church's liturgy later on in the Middle Ages. Even though they were written in Latin, worshippers probably found them more appealing than the monotonous tones of Gregorian chants or the severity of ancient Latin hymns. The carol eventually developed its own distinctive style somewhere between a hymn, a folk song, and a sacred ballad. While sometimes found in hymn books, the carol's content, as well as its verse structure and musical style, is distinct from the hymn. Carols focus more on the drama of the Nativity with its cast of shepherds, wise men, stars, animals, and the baby Jesus rather than on the direct praise of God.
The period from around 1400 to 1550 was the heyday of the English carol, by now established as a popular religious song generally on the theme of Christ's Nativity. The development of open-air religious drama inspired carols to be sung during these performances. Many English carols were composed between 1400 and the middle of the 17th century. France, Germany, and Spain also made contributions, resulting in great variety and diversity. In England, however, carols fell upon hard times after about 1647. Puritan disapproval of jubilant celebration as compared to the more somber tradition of religious worship drove carols out of the churches for a period of 200 years. While carols survived among the simple folk in some of the remote country churches, caroling in general reverted to being an activity reserved for the home and on the streets at Christmas time.
Most of the carols that are popular today are of comparatively recent origin, but some that we sing are so old that no one is certain when they were written or by whom. During the 19th century, many of these fine old carols were rediscovered in ancient manuscripts and revived by Victorian romantics. Carols played an important role in the Victorian reinvention of Christmas as a largely domestic festival full of sentimentality and good cheer. A huge number of new carols were written in the mid-nineteenth century, many in a pseudo-traditional style. It was the Victorians, rather than Bing Crosby, who invented the concept of the white Christmas, bringing snow into the Nativity story. They also wrote Santa songs and jingle bell tunes, singing both sacred and secular songs with equal enthusiasm in their front parlors.
The early decades of the twentieth century saw continued efforts to collect long-lost carols by those involved in the folklore revival. At the same time, the 20th century also produced many modern expressions of the Christmas story. Carols are a living tradition, and as such, they are constantly being added to with new material. Nowadays, the repertoire of carols may include songs about the winter season that don't necessarily have anything to do with Christmas. In the late twentieth century some traditional carols were even re-written to fit in with social changes and political correctness, by eliminating gender-exclusive or overtly Christian language. The politically correct, multi-faith carol, purged of any reference to wise men, Christ, cribs or angels, has taken carols back to where they started - disconnected from Christmas or Christianity.
The general tendency of modern civilization, with its interest in technology and commercialism, has been to forget or even destroy traditional customs. Yet for most people at Christmas time, there is at least a brief revival of sentiment and tradition, and a temporary return of belief in the Christian concept of the brotherhood of man. This is expressed and celebrated in the Christmas carols that we know so well. Many towns and cities have community Christmas trees, and carol singing around them is a common pastime. Groups of carolers visit hospitals and shut-ins, shopping plazas and malls. Sometimes caroling groups are professional singers, but more often they are just people who enjoy singing the beloved songs. No gathering during the festive holiday season seems complete without the raising of voices in unison to the inspiring tunes and familiar words of the old favorite Christmas carols. Even the oldest carols seem as modern and alive today as they were when they were first sung long ago. Carols provide joyful messages, stirring melodies, great rejoicing and inspiration, and an expression of hope for peace on earth.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
As well as reflecting the mood of their times, some of our best loved carols also contain coded comments on contemporary events. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" sounds just like ancient pagan counting song. Most people don't realize this song had its origin as a teaching tool to instruct young people in the meaning and content of Christianity, at a time when Christians were being persecuted and could not share their faith openly. Consequently, the song is full of hidden messages. The Twelve Days of Christmas refers to the period between Christmas on December 25th and the Epiphany on January 6th. The song begins, "On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree..." "The true love" represents God and the "me" who receives the presents is the Christian. The Partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ who died on a tree as a gift from God. The "two turtle doves" were the Old and New Testaments - another sign of God. The "three French Hens" were faith, hope, and love - the three gifts of Spirit that abide. (1 Corinthians 13) The "four calling birds" were the four Gospels, which sing the song of salvation through Jesus Christ. The "five golden rings" were the first five books of the Bible, also called the "Book of Moses." The "six geese-a-laying" were the six days of creation. The "seven swans-a-swimming" were the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. (Corinthians 12:9-11; Romans 12; Ephesians 4; 1 Peter 4:10-11) The "eight maids-a-milking" were the eight Beatitudes. (Matt. 5:3-10) The "nine ladies dancing" were nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-25.) The "ten lords a-leaping" were the Ten Commandments. The "eleven pipers piping" were the eleven faithful disciples. The "twelve drummers drumming" were the twelve points of the Apostle's Creed. So the next time you hear "The Twelve Days of Christmas," consider the fact that this otherwise secular-sounding song is deeply rooted in the Christian faith.
Away in a Manger
One of the traditional carols that has always been a favorite of children is "Away in a Manger." The simplicity of the words, the pictures they bring to mind, the ease with which it is sung, all have contributed to its popularity through the years. For a long time Martin Luther was given credit for it. In many hymn books it is listed as "Luther's Cradle Hymn." However, there is some controversy over its authorship. The earliest versions of "Away in a Manger" have been found in English and not in German. This is an inconsistency since Luther was born in Germany. Whoever wrote it, children always enjoy singing this carol at Christmas time. The music is like a lullaby or cradle song with a rocking, lilting rhythm and a simple, pure melody. It expresses the beautiful story of the baby Jesus in a lovely descriptive poem form that sounds almost like a prayer.
Joy to the World
Isaac Watts wrote this hymn in 1719 as part of his version of Psalm 98 (verse 4-9). While the initial stanza announces that "The Lord is come," it is the only stanza that is related to Christmas and the birth of Jesus. The other stanzas could easily be appropriate for any season of the year. Yet, who would deny this hymn a revered place among the traditional carols? The exuberant joy that permeates the psalm as it lauds the God of the Old Testament is present in this case in praise of Jesus Christ. A marvelous climax occurs in the final couplet: "The glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love." For more than a century the hymn was sung to numerous tunes that fit its poetic structure. Then, in 1839, Lowell Mason, a New England music educator, published a tune that has become permanently associated with these words. Mason borrowed two musical phrases from Handel's Messiah and wove them into this joyful song for Christmas.
The beloved carol "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht" was heard for the first time in a village church in Oberndorf, Austria, on December 24, 1818. Earlier that day, Father Joseph Mohr had journeyed to the home of choir director Franz Xaver Gruber. He showed his friend a poem he had written about the birth of the Christ child and asked him to add a melody and guitar accompaniment so that it could be sung at Midnight Mass. Mohr's reason for wanting the new carol is unknown. Some speculate that the church organ would not work; others feel that Mohr, who dearly loved guitar music, merely wanted a new carol for Christmas. Later that evening, the congregation at St. Nicholas Church listened as the voices of Father Joseph Mohr and choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber rang through the church to the accompaniment of Father Mohr's guitar. On each of the six verses, the choir repeated the last two lines in four-part harmony. On that Christmas Eve, a song was born that would endear its way into the hearts of people all around the world. It is said that there are now over 300 translations of "Silent Night." Its powerful message of heavenly peace has crossed all borders and language barriers, conquering the hearts of people everywhere.
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