Contrary to popular belief, for most of musical history carols were not exclusively – or even especially – associated with Christmas. Some of the earliest songs to which we have extant words and music are carols: that is to say, they are songs with a repeating refrain or “burden”.
Some of the earliest carols are collected on the Trinity Carol Roll, an extraordinary medieval document held in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. The songs it contains are beautiful, often filled with stunningly simple imagery and set to tunes that feel catchy even today:
Ther is no rose of swych virtu
As is the rose that bar Jesu
For in that rose contained was
Heaven and earth in lytle space
These songs often mix English lyrics with a refrain in Latin, suggesting that they helped to link secular and religious activities (since Church services and music would have been in Latin during the medieval and pre-Reformation eras). However, as Dr David Skinner points out in his booklet notes for Deo Gracias Anglia!, the association between carols and Christmas did not come until much later:
“In the 15th century, the Nativity was only one of a range of religious topics that inspired carol writers. Many early carols relate to other festivals of the Church’s year, and it is possible that they were intended to be sung at feasts or evening entertainments on such occasions; an account of a royal banquet in 1487 records that members ‘…of the King’s Chappell…incontynently after the Kings first course sange a carall’. Six of the Trinity Roll’s carols take up the theme of nativity, and one each is devoted to St Stephen and St John the Evangelist, whose feast-days fall within the broader Christmas season (26th and 27th December respectively). A further three praise the virgin Mary, and one is a more general moral text.”
The earliest mention in English of a “Christmas carol” appears in a 1426 work by John Awdlay, a chaplain who made a list of 25 “caroles of Cristemas”. These were probably sung by “wassailers”: groups of revellers who went from door to door during the festive season. However, this was only one type of carol, as they were used at a wide range of religious and secular festivals.
Carols became more popular in Northern European countries after the Reformation (which began almost exactly 500 years ago in 2017). Figures such as Martin Luther wrote carols and encouraged their use in services alongside other forms of religious music.
But it was in the Victorian era that carols became firmly associated with Christmas. This perhaps isn’t surprising, since many of the Christmas traditions we celebrate today have their origins in Victorian England. In 1833, William Sandys published a volume entitled Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, which contained some of the carols that are best known today, including God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, The First Nowell, I Saw Three Ships, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The nation’s newfound passion for carolling was further reinforced by the 1871 publication of Christmas Carols, New and Old by Henry Ramsden Bramley and Sir John Stainer.
Today, the association between Christmas and carols is firmly entrenched and for many people, singing carols in church, in the shower or around the streets is one of the most enjoyable things about the festive season and a sure sign that Christmas cheer has arrived.
Want to hear more medieval carols? Try Deo Gracias Anglia!
Classic Victorian carolling more your thing? Create a traditional Christmas atmosphere with Carols for a Victorian Christmas