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What’s the deal with Christmas carols, anyway?

They're hard to avoid at Christmas time, but what makes a carol a carol? Where do Christmas carols come from, and why do we love them so much? Rachel Wilkinson explores.

Now, more than ever, the world feels divided about what really matters at Christmas time: family, friends, food, presents, the potential birth of a baby, really tiny screwdrivers…

Most people would agree, however, that Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without carols. For some, they’re simply the icing on the cake (though I advise you to ditch the icing and toast the marzipan under the grill instead), enjoyed by passive listeners browsing the aisles for pet advent calendars and novelty socks. For others, they’re a huge feature of the winter months, marking the changing of the season and the active preservation of old customs.

What is a Christmas carol exactly?

It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes a carol a carol, partly because the definition has changed so much over time. Originally, it was more strongly linked to dancing, coming from the old French word carole, a circular dance accompanied by singing. At some stage, the word shifted its allegiance to describe the song instead of the movement, so you shouldn’t necessarily feel the need to bust out your best moves to Silent Night or Ding Dong Merrily. However, if you can get all the way through the bouncing jig of I Saw Three Ships without even a little movement, you’re not doing it right.

Times have changed though; we now mainly associate carols with choir boys, cathedrals, and December, but this wasn’t always the way. They’ve formed part of annual festivities since the pagans first danced around stone circles to welcome the sun to the Winter Solstice. Much later, carols appeared throughout hymn books and across broadsides to mark feasts and key moments in the religious and not-so-religious calendar: the Nativity, Advent, Epiphany, and Lent, as well as May Day, the seasons, and the harvest.

Do carols have to be religious?

It’s easy to assume that all carols came from or ended up in church at some point. Surely, they’ve been bellowed out by devout congregations on a Sunday morning forever? Participatory singing wasn’t even part of religious services for a long time, really coming into fashion when churches and chapels across the land turned to music as a marketing ploy when competing for their parishioners’ affections. Before then, religious music was to be heard, not sung (OK, so it’s a bit more complex than that, but how long have you got?!).

So-called folk carols were identified and collected around the country by the likes of Cecil Sharp and Sabine Baring-Gould, as they did with other folk songs. With simple single-line melodies and often rural references, they were sung by one singer, with no need for harmony or additional parts. Until they were noted down by the collectors, the survival of these traditional carols was reliant on repetition by those who had always known them. We don’t know who originally wrote them, or when.

When the music used for worship was formalised and standardised across the country, its variety began to decrease. Previously, towns and villages sung carols that were unique to a particular area – what was heard in one village might not be echoed by the one down the road. The newly published hymn books heralded the decline of this individuality, though with their harmonised tunes in multiple parts, these ‘local’ carols continued to be sung and kept alive (in some cases, to this day) by the people who appreciated them. They were usually committed to paper from the outset – the composer’s wishes clear – which differentiates them from the simplicity of the more-naturally evolved traditional carols. You couldn’t necessarily listen to them once and pick up the tune – it’s often shared between four or six vocal lines and is only really apparent when everyone comes together – but as they often make use of well-known lyrics (While Shepherds and Hark the Herald appear time and time again), it doesn’t take long to pick them up. These truly are carols that are ‘greater than the sum of their parts’.

Carols have survived wars, reformations, and the Bob Dylan treatment, and they tie us to generations of our ancestors who were already singing The Boar’s Head at the time of the last Great Plague.

Despite the revival of sacred music for worship, many of the local carols remained resolutely within the secular tradition – only for enjoyment outside the church. They were written by local artisans with little musical training but plenty of compositional vision – perhaps we can rather simplistically suggest that these amateur musicians were bridging the gap between the old traditional singers and the more prolific carol composers. Local carol traditions were built on songs by the people, for the people, and these songs were being sung, and continue to be sung, wherever the people happened to be on a Saturday night in winter…

Even now, when many of the older beliefs and traditions have been well-wrapped and hidden away at the bottom of the stocking, it seems that everyone has a favourite carol. Maybe that’s part of the continuing charm and beauty of this music. Carols have survived wars, reformations, and the Bob Dylan treatment, and they tie us to generations of our ancestors who were already singing The Boar’s Head at the time of the last Great Plague.

When does a carol become a Christmas carol?

There are certain musical and topical qualities that help to determine whether you’re dealing with a classic Christmas carol, though there are no hard and fast rules. Many of them use an alternating verse-chorus structure to help congregations celebrate the joys of the season in an orderly fashion. Others use medievalesque chord patterns to evoke that can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-why-it-sounds-so-Christmassy feel. Often there’s the arrival of a bunch of angels, shepherds, and the magi, or perhaps the appearance of a magnificent star. A lot of love gets bandied around and a good amount of adoration, too, if you can overlook the Coventry Carol’s royally decreed massacre of the innocents. However, for every song that neatly fits the brief, another rips up the rule book and throws it out of the sleigh. You might find yourself thinking “Now this is a good, honest, proper carol!”, only to discover that the entirety of Twitter disagrees. But does it matter…? Christmas carols, Advent carols, winter songs, and hymns all have their place in a musical celebration of the season.

Maybe we don’t really realise how much, even as modern, digitalised humans, we’re still guided and affected by the turning of the year and the ever-changing seasons.

Potential arguments aside, it’s hard to deny that something about this music manages to evoke a deep nostalgia within even the most stony-hearted of us for ‘the way things used to be’. Maybe we don’t really realise how much, even as modern, digitalised humans, we’re still guided and affected by the turning of the year and the ever-changing seasons. When we sing Christmas carols, we’re helping to preserve one of the oldest continuous musical traditions. These songs have been a staple of yearly celebrations for centuries, apart from that awkward time in the 1600s when the Puritans banned them, and Christmas, and fun in general.

Which is the best carol?

The survival of carols has been a bit of a popularity contest, and like every competition, only the winners are remembered. The most popular carols were more likely to be printed and circulated, and then included and preserved in books and manuscripts. If everyone in the 18th Century had loved Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing? (Or Quelle est cette odeur agréable? in the original French) as much as they enjoyed While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, our carols books might look different. Actually, even that little French number isn’t a good example of the underdog because it’s still being printed and performed. How many carols have been lost in the mist of Christmas past?

This is survivorship bias at its most biased, so I encourage you to vote your favourite carol through to the next generation by singing it at least once a day for the entirety of December, to anyone who will listen. Unless your favourite carol is While Shepherds to the tune you learnt at school. I think we can leave that one behind.