Ian Bradley reflects on the origins and development of Christmas carols
The sound of carols, whether emanating from a supermarket sound system or from the lips of youthful wassailers going from house to house, is one of the surest signals that Christmas is coming. Yet although it now seems almost unthinkable to celebrate (or survive) the festive season without them, carols originally had nothing to do with Christmas, nor even with Christianity. They were among the many pagan customs taken over by the medieval church which used them initially as much in the celebration of Easter as of Christmas. The subsequent development of the carol as a distinctive genre standing somewhere between the hymn; the folksong and the sacred ballad and having as its subject matter the story and significance of Jesus's birth serves as an interesting pointer to several major currents in British religions, social and cultural history over the last five hundred years.
Born out of late medieval humanism, carols were suppressed by Puritan zealots after the Reformation, partially reinstated at the Restoration, sung by Dissenters and radicals to the distaste of the Established Church in the eighteenth century, rediscovered and reinvented by Victorian antiquarians and romantics, and re-written in the late twentieth century to fit the demand for social realism and political correctness. As well as reflecting the mood of their times, some of our best loved carols also contain coded comments on contemporary events, including, perhaps, the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and the revolutions across Europe in 1848.
The derivation of the word `carol' has been the subject of much speculation. It probably goes back through the old French `caroler' and the Latin `choraula' to the Greek `choros', a circling dance often accompanied by singing and associated with dramatic performances, religious festivities and fertility rites. The carol of classical times was a major element in popular celebrations to mark the passing of the winter solstice and the promise of spring. The coming of Christianity may well have increased the carol's pagan connotations with its lively dance rhythms providing a marked contrast to the restrained and measured chants of the new religion. The Church was for long uneasy about the performance of such popular singing-dances and the `caraula' was explicitly proscribed in a decree of the mid-seventh-century Council of Chalonsur-Saone. The singing of carols was further condemned by the Council of Avignon in 1209 and as late as 1435 by the Council of Basle. The earliest known reference to the carol in English literature, which dates from around 1300 and uses the word in its modern spelling, has no religious connotations and seems to denote simply a round dance.
Although the Church came relatively early to see the advantages of incorporating elements of pagan customs such as the Roman Saturnalia and the Germano-Celtic Yule in its celebration of Christ's nativity, it took much longer to be persuaded of the merits of carols. It was not until the austerity of early medieval Christianity had been tempered by the new spirit of imagination and romance associated with the twelfth-century renaissance that they were taken up as Christian folksongs. The new humanism also brought a change of emphasis away from death and judgement towards a more incarnational focus on the humanity and personality of Jesus, in which the cradle became almost as important an object of devotion as the Cross.
Francis of Assisi is often credited with being instrumental in bringing about this new interest in the feast of the Nativity and devotion to Christ as the Babe of Bethlehem. He was for long regarded as the instigator of the cult of the Christmas crib, but recent scholarship has shown that there was singing and dancing around cribs at Christmas time in several Italian churches more than a century before he set one up at Grecchio in …