“We wish you a Merry Christmas, We wish you a Merry Christmas, We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”
Have you heard this song before? It’s an example of a Christmas carol that we often hear on the radio and in homes around America and the world this time of year. Christmas carols are familiar tunes that bring joy and Christmas spirit during the winter. But did you know that many famous Christmas carols have very un-Christmassy beginnings?
Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but at the time they were not Christmas Carols. They were songs that were sung to celebrate the Winter Solstice celebrations. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and usually falls on Dec 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere. The Winter Solstice was commonly celebrated in Europe hundreds of years ago before Christianity spread throughout Europe. These people held religious beliefs that centered on nature and the natural world. They celebrated the Winter Solstice with songs that celebrated the turning of the season and the longer, brighter days ahead.
When Christianity spread throughout Europe, these carols began to change and became a mix of old songs with new Christian themes. Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus around the same timing as the Winter Solstice, so over time the winter celebrations in Europe came to celebrate both. Eventually old pagan carols were combined with new song lyrics celebrating the birth of Jesus.
The tradition of singing songs to celebrate this time of year eventually became part of the winter church services celebrated by Christians. In the year 129, a Roman Bishop said that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another famous early Christmas song written for the Greek Orthodox Church in 760 was also sung at a Christmas service. Soon after, many composers all over Europe started to write “Christmas Carols.”
At first, these new Christmas songs were not very popular, as they were all written and sung in Latin. Latin was the language of the Romans and was used in church services, but it was a language that most regular people throughout Europe could not understand. During the Middle Ages, in the 1200s, Romans had been pushed back from their positions of power throughout Europe and common people became less interested in Roman traditions. Common European people stopped celebrating Christmas in church altogether and the tradition of singing songs to celebrate Christmas started to die out.
This changed in 1223, when St. Francis of Assisi, a famous Italian Catholic preacher, started something new in Italy called a “Nativity Play”. The play was performed in church at Christmas time and the people in the play sang songs or “canticles” that told the story of the birth of Jesus. The choruses of these new carols were sung in Latin, but St. Francis thought that the songs should be sung in the language that the people watching the play could understand and join in, so the songs’ versus were translated into a variety of European languages. The new carols became popular and spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
The earliest carol like this was written in 1410. It was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Unfortunately, only a small part of the song still exists. Traveling singers during the Middle Ages, or “Minstrels”, sang these carols as they traveled from town to town for money. This helped the songs to become common and popular all throughout Europe.
Churches eventually started to hire official carol singers called “Waits” that worked for the church and spread Christian messages by singing these songs in public. “Waits” were bands of singers led by important local political leaders. They would go throughout town singing the songs around Christmas time and collecting money for the church. The groups were called “Waits” because they only sang on Christmas Eve, which was sometimes known as “watchnight” or “waitnight” back then. The name reflected that the shepherds in the story of Jesus were watching their sheep at night when angels appeared to them. Watchnight or Waitnight was considered to be when Christmas celebrations would begin in Europe.
In England, the popularity of Christianity grew from the Middle Ages in the 1200s to the Victorian period in the 1800s. For over 600 years, English people participated in church services and set up orchestras and choirs. People enjoyed the music of church services and particularly liked singing Christmas songs, so carols grew in popularity throughout this time. New carol services were created in Church and became popular at Christmas. So did the custom of singing carols in the streets to spread the message of Christmas and collect money for the church.
Some of the carols that were written during this time period were songs that were made out of traditional English folk songs with Christmas lyrics added to them.
In 1880, Edward White Benson, who was a Bishop in the town of Truro in England, noticed that people were not coming to church as much as he felt they should. In particular, at Christmas, people in Truro liked to celebrate on Christmas eve, but they didn’t come to church. Instead they would gather in pubs and drink alcohol and dance and sing. Bishop Benson, decided to try to lure everyone out of the pub and into church for a new Christmas service.
Truro didn’t have a cathedral, but instead they just held church services in a large shed. Bishop Benson had to really think about how he could make a church service held there interesting enough to get the townspeople to attend. Bishop Benson and his wife and children all liked to write. In fact, Bishop Benson is thought to have written the longest diary that was ever written at the time!
Because of his desire to draw people into church and his love of writing, Bishop Benson and his family decided to write some of their own songs celebrating Christmas. One of the reasons that people loved going to the pubs was because they would sing together there. They would sing folk songs, or traditional songs passed down from one generation to the next. And they would also do folk dances. In fact, this is what the world “carol” meant at the time. It meant “to dance in a circle.
Bishop Benson and his family wrote some Christmas songs to be performed in church. Because some of the songs are combinations of old folk tunes and Christmas traditions or religious images, some Christmas carols can seem kind of strange. For example, have you ever heard the song, “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing”? The song doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think of the Christmas story. Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, is a landlocked area. This means there is no sea there on which ships could sail. Some versions of the song involve Jesus on Christmas day in the morning. But other versions involve three pretty girls on New Year’s Day. It is likely that this song was originally a folk tune sung at pubs in England.
The new version of Christmas church services became very popular. People loved to come into church to be part of the singing and celebrating. And the tradition of singing Christmas carols in church began to spread throughout the country. And Bishop Benson eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is the highest church position in the Church of England.
Let’s take a look at some specific Christmas carols and their history.
The first is “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
In the 18th and 19th centuries, other people started to collect these folk songs and turn them into new songs. Over time the songs were edited and changed until they became some of the traditional Christmas songs we all know and love today. For example, the co-founder of Methodism, Charles Wesley, wrote a carol that began: Hark how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings, Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” He put these lyrics to a Mendelsson tune and that is how the carol was sung for over 20 year. Until another preacher changed the first line to Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the new-born King! This is the version most people know today. The original song was not religious, but it slowly became a song celebrating the Christian story of Jesus’s birth.
Another famous Christmas carol is “Good King Wenceslas.”
While the song sings about a real person, his name was not actually Wenceslas but Vaclav and he was the Duke of Bohemia in the 10th Century. Vaclav had a difficult childhood. His dad died when he was young and he was brought up by his mom and a grandma. But the two women fought about what his religion should be. When he grew to be an adult, Vaclav chose to be Christian. He started doing good for others and in particular, he would give to the poor. But he would do this secretly at night by leaving things they needed on their doorsteps. He was particularly interested in giving to widows, orphans and people with disabilities. After Vaclav died, he was declared a saint and king by Otto the Great. The song followed 500 years later when an Englishman named John Mason Neale heard a tune he liked and put together the lyrics to the song we now know today.
“Jingle Bells,” is another Christmas carol that did not have a Christmassy start. Jingle Bells, which was written in America, was actually originally written about Thanksgiving.
In modern times, Christmas carols are popular throughout the world. There are various forms of Christmas songs, including rock tunes and dance songs. And almost every famous musician puts out an album of Christmas songs, putting their own flare on traditional tunes that everyone knows.
People in England and other countries still enjoy the tradition of carolling. In modern times, this tradition sees groups of people go door to door to sing for neighbours and spread Christmas cheer. Some carolers also collect money for the poor.
And the tradition of a carol service or nativity play in church is still quite popular. Many churches around the world hold a special Christmas service in which the story of Jesus’s birth is re-enacted and the church-goers sing Christmas carols together. If you have never been to one of these services, it is something to try one day. Singing together in a group can be very fun and you will be part of history watching the service and knowing it’s traditional roots.
What are some of your favourite Christmas carols? Have you ever thought about where these songs came from? With an adult’s help, you can research online about the origins of your favourite songs. Perhaps the song you look at had a different beginning than you realized. Some Christmas songs are tunes that are written by very famous composers with new lyrics to go with them.
We hope you enjoy getting into the holiday spirit this December with good music, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza or a different holiday depending on where you live and your background.