The Surprisingly Controversial History of Christmas Carols

With the Christmas season now over for another year, I hope that you’ve all had your fill of good company, even better food, and plenty of Christmas carols – but what is it about the humble Christmas carol that has seen it endure as such an integral part of our yearly routine?

In an age when the entirety of October to December features Christmas music on heavy rotation everywhere you go, and with even AI programs for composing music writing their own festive sing-alongs, it’s easy to take even our most beloved Christmas carols for granted.

In fact, the Christmas carol has a much longer, more interesting, and far more controversial history than you might expect – one that’s worth considering, no matter the time of year.

The Origins of Christmas Carols

There is no single, decisive origin story for Christmas carols. Instead, the songs themselves and the culture associated with them coalesced over many centuries, and from many different wells of influence.

Despite their close association with the Christian faith, some people have suggested that the origins of Christmas carols actually lie in the celebratory songs sung by European pagans – in particular the songs sung to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Although the majority of these early festive songs have been lost to history, it’s possible that some have made their way all the way down the years, and are still with us today – The Holly and the Ivy is sometimes thought to have pagan origins, making it potentially over 1000 years old.

The Christmas carol as we know it today first began to take form when the early Christians began combining these pagan folk songs with Latin hymns.  This new style of music proved to be immensely popular for a while, but it soon fell out of fashion and wouldn’t see a revival until St Francis of Assisi included them in his Nativity Plays in 13th Century Italy.

Then, in 1426, another important element of the Christmas carol emerged, as the songs of John Awdlay began to be adopted by wassailers – groups of singers who would perform from door to door.

The Christmas Carol as Protest Music

Perhaps the most fascinating chapter in the history of Christmas carols is their brief transformation into acts of defiance and political subversion during England’s ten-year period as a Protectorate under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. As a strict Puritan, Cromwell outlawed the practicing of Christmas, including the performance of Christmas carols.

Throughout this time, Catholics would gather in secret to celebrate Christmas and sing carols. Today it’s all too easy to dismiss and roll our eyes at some of the more long-standing traditions of the Christmas period, but for Catholics during this time they were not only a secret expression of their faith, but one that put them in great personal danger and risk of punishment.

 The Emergence of the Modern Christmas Carol | Reviews

Although carols have always survived throughout the years, they have seen several peaks and dips in their popularity. After being forced underground following the Civil War, the next major period of resurgent popularity for the carol was during the Victorian era, when many of the famous carols we still sing today were first written.

The Victorians loved Christmas, and invented the modern forms of many of our most recognizable festive traditions, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they ushered in the period of greatest acclaim and respect for carols as a form of music. By the early 20th Century, several major composers were beginning to incorporate carols into their work – including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and Gustav Holst, who first set Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Bleak Midwinter to music.

 In the modern day, secular carols may have joined their place alongside the more spiritual fare, and composing technology and music notation software may have overtaken the traditional sheet music writer, but the core elements of the Christmas carol have remained the same. Their unique mixture of religious and folk traditions that has seen them survive down the centuries, and allowed them to serve as everything from joyous celebrations to acts of popular defiance.


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