But back to the lovely Carol. She was a young lady of the nineteenth century—very Victorian, and participating in what had become a beloved tradition. If you can imagine that gritty setting in newly industrialized England, with all its dirty air, foul smells, noisy machinery, and add to that the poverty that sudden economic change brings, that would be Carol’s setting. So then imagine, a group of carolers passing through the crowded streets of London, spreading cheer and hope with their light-hearted songs and Christmas hymns. But where, exactly, did Christmas caroling come from? How did it begin?
In its earliest form a carol was a circle dance, which is why so many of the surviving songs have a rhythm and tempo that lilt and jump and keep the toe tapping. Think of songs like, I Saw Three Ships, God Rest Ye, Patapan, In Dulci Jubilo, The Holly and the Ivy, or a Wassail song. It would be impossible to talk about caroling without first mentioning Wassail (the more bawdy parent of caroling), which meant, “be well” in Old Norse, and was common as far back as 1200 A.D. People would walk the streets shouting or singing words of cheer. These were secular sentiments for the most part—religious songs and hymns were not sung outside the church, and then mostly only chanted by choirs. Wassail chants were often humorous, and maybe even a little off-color. In spite of its ribald reputation, words such as, Love and Joy Come to You,” were common and often rewarded with a spicy beverage that eventually took on the name Wassail. Once the behavior and treat were firmly linked, the reciters would boldly announce, “Here We Come a-Wassailing”.
The “Love and Joy” theme was not just a Christian echo of the Apostle Paul’s words, but a common theme throughout folk music. If life was short, difficult, fraught with upheavals and reversals, you were happy to receive a blessing when it was offered. There can be no joy without the very real proximity to suffering; it exists apart from suffering and has little to do with happiness, and more to do with Hope. Love and Joy, then, are more of a reminder to us that we can have them if we will.
So, as a circle dance, with mostly secular lyrics, it was very much a folk activity. That said, there seems to be a connection with the earliest tradition of caroling and hymn singing to St. Francis of Assisi in the very early 13th century. By imposing Christian texts onto simple folk melodies they were able to create something new: the Christmas hymn or carol. St Francis encouraged people to include music in the church services, and especially Christmas observances. Soon, the parishioners took these beyond the church walls to enjoy, and the carol, as we know it, began its slow evolution. But, the form was still reputed to have its roots in the secular wassail, and so not wholly endorsed by the Church. Still, the tunes and the lyrics were beginning to separate themselves from the somewhat gloomy chants and plainsong of the Middle Ages, making them gain in popularity.
It wasn’t till the 15th century that caroling came into its own. Now came the development of the Mystery Play, or plays about the birth of Christ or doings of saints. They naturally needed songs with melodies that would appeal, such as the folk tunes, free from puritanical restraints. This gave momentum to the ballad, which also began as a dance and developed into the narrative song we know it to be. From ballad came the word, ball. Music of this sort quickly became very popular. Now people went about at Christmas time singing carols and ballads about the story of the miraculous birth of Christ, but they also sang secular songs as well. Any song that brought blessing to the season and warmed the listener was welcomed. The music was fresh, exciting, and accessible—a winning combination meant there was no holding back. As with classic stories, classics songs never die, and as a result, we have so many songs from that era. Genius, inspiration, and talent come together only occasionally to give us such a trove of timeless treasures. In the period for which Carol was created, many of the songs included in her song book were already considered much-loved and long-established Christmas hymns.
And the tradition continues each year with a throng of new songs; most will not make it into the canon. I remind myself that, because of the popularity of the singer, there are some who find warmth and good cheer in the rendition of the song, and maybe their Christmas will be a little brighter because of it. But only the best will rise to the top and be available for generations to come.
The sources used for this history come from The Oxford Book of Carols, Oxford University Press, Oxford, Percy Dreamer, R. Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw, eds. (1964); Acadia Publishing; and Wikipedia.
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