Where did Christmas carols come from?

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

During the first thousand years of Christianity, Christmas played second fiddle to Easter, the most important feast and celebration of the year. That might sound hard to believe in today’s context, where even secular people celebrate Christmas, while Easter is often deemed a secondary holiday for many except the pious.

With regard to music, very little appeared for either occasion until the second millennium C.E., when Christmas songs — notably carols — began to appear. Even though they were not originally exclusive to Christmas, carols eventually became an important tradition for Christmastime. Here’s a quick explanation of where carols came from and how they fit into our modern idea of Christmas.

The origins of carols are complex and often disputed, but most agree their humble beginnings stemmed from Anglo-Saxon round dances that had repetitive choruses. These songs were more likely sung in celebration of the winter solstice rather than the Nativity.

Courtesy image.

These tunes proved a useful tool for early Christians — namely the Franciscans — who borrowed them for enactments of Biblical stories that the poor, illiterate and non-Latin speaking common people could understand. It was much easier to explain Latin words in song, so many of the terms — and songs — stuck.

Carols came into their own during the 15th century, when the growing popularity of the story of the Virgin Mary became subject matter for these folk songs. Tunes such as the medieval “The Holly and the Ivy” were commonly sung, blending pagan naturalism with Christian ideas.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, some Protestant reformers grew cool on Christmas, thinking it was not a Biblical holiday because it was too concerned with the story of the “Catholic” Virgin Mary. There was even an attempt to ban the holiday in 1561 by the Scottish Kirk after the Reformation of 1560. Almost 80 years later, the Scottish Parliament passed a law that made celebrating “Yule vacations” illegal. Incredibly, the ban lasted 400 years, with Christmas not being re-listed as a public holiday until 1958.

Modern Christmas traditions began to emerge during the 1800s, including decorating trees, giving presents, and feasting with a close circle of loved ones. Naturally, music became an integral part of these gatherings. Popular songs such as “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Away in the Manger” emerged first as children’s songs, as did “Jingle Bells,” which was written in Boston in 1857 for a children’s Sunday school Thanksgiving celebration. That’s right, “Jingle Bells” is technically a Thanksgiving song, not a Christmas song.

The 20th century saw attempts by many to build sentimentality around carols. Perhaps the British Anglican priest Eric Milner White is most responsible for certain Christmas carols being so closely tied to the holiday during modern times, as he introduced the service of “Nine Lessons and Carols,” which was first broadcast in 1928. To this day, the BBC still includes White’s service as a major part of its Christmas programming.

During the WWII era, many carols emerged with more of an emphasis on the season, rather than specifically referencing the Nativity. These include Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” in 1942 and Judy Garland’s performance of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in 1943. However, songs of this style reached farther back in history than that. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” first appeared in 1780, and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” has origins dating to the 1830s — both of which contain lyrics which sideline spirituality for playability in seasonal commercial spaces.

By the 1840s, marketers began to see Christmas as a prime opportunity to sell more goods. The first in-store Santa appeared at Macy’s in New York City in 1862. It only seemed natural that the explosion of secular songs would also accompany the rampant commercialism that was now associated with the holiday.

Perhaps the line from Berlin’s “White Christmas” sums up the idea of Christmas carols best: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know.”

Modern Christmas music, whether by design or by accident, has become part of an imaginary but powerful recreation of an imagined past that still brings people together. 

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