Why do we love Christmas carols so much?
If you come to any or all of the Christmas Eve / Christmas Day worship services at Westminster, you will hear plenty of Christmas carols sung and played in a wide variety of formats. Everyone participates–choirs, congregation, brass ensemble, and organ-and one thing will be perfectly evident: we love Christmas carols! And we’re not the only ones. Christians the world over love Christmas carols. We love singing them and we love listening to them, sometimes over and over ad infinitem. These special musical treasures have an unparalleled way of touching our hearts, tied in as they are with childhood memories of Christmases past, with heartwarming family traditions, beautiful worship services, and countless other intense emotional experiences we cling to.
What better time to have a little lesson about carols?
The definition of a carol, according to the editors of the New Oxford Book of Carols, includes the requirement that "the content. . .be narrative, contemplative, or celebratory; the spirit must be simple, the form normally strophic." Modern scholars tend to restrict the term carol to the specific medieval poetic and musical form, derived from the sung and danced carole, in which a refrain precedes and follows each verse. So far, this seems fine, but perhaps a bit broad (and you may have noted that not all of our beloved carols have refrains). Percy Dearmer’s definition (from the Oxford Book of Carols, 1928) is concise: "Songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious [by which he means joyful], popular, and modern." Again, this tells us something, but certainly doesn’t narrow the field by much. Most people use the term carol to refer simply to a strophic song associated with Christmas. But this definition is both too broad (potentially encompassing everything from Coventry Carol to Silent Night to Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer) and too narrow in subject.
What it boils down to is that carols are really as hard to define as they are fun to sing! We usually think of them as religious songs, but some medieval carols are amorous, humorous, satirical, or political. We also think of them as popular songs, in the same sense that folk songs are popular. In reality, carols were often written by educated men and women whose goal was to provide songs that were attractive as well as instructive. These were neither true folk songs nor hymns intended for the liturgy; they showed a tender compassion for the poverty, pain, and emotions of real people.
In the middle ages, the one indispensable element of a carol was its literary structure: carols had uniform stanzas and a burden, that is, a refrain sung at the beginning as well as after each stanza. In the oldest carols, the stanza was sung by soloists, the refrain probably by a larger group. The stanza/refrain structure, though present in many carols across the centuries, is no longer considered essential to the genre, leaving the definition wide open once again.
Throughout medieval Europe, the Christmas period was celebrated with an elaborate richness exceeded only by Holy Week and Easter. Sung dramas and all kinds of religious and secular celebrations were common, and the official liturgy was adorned with musical additions and expansions specific to the various feast days. Carols formed a large part of the extra music. The enormous collection Piae Cantiones (1582) contains some of the best of the medieval songs and carols (for example, In dulci jubilo-Good Christian Friends, Rejoice; Personent Hodie-On this Day Earth Shall Ring; & Tempus Adest Floridum-Good King Wenceslas), and was the source from which, nearly three centuries later, they entered the English carol repertory.
For a long time after the Reformation, the English Church was considerably less enthusiastic about all things Christmas than the Lutheran Church because of the constant need to appease its powerful Calvinist faction, which regarded Christmas as a popish abuse. From 1644 to 1660 Christmas Day was theoretically abolished by Parliament, and a comparable ban in Puritan Massachusetts was not formally rescinded until 1681. The Book of Common Prayer made no specific provision for seasonal hymns. In secular society, Christmas continued to thrive, of course. Christmas songs survive from plays (i.e., Coventry Carol) or were written for home use. Christmas carols may have gone underground for a while, but nothing could eradicate them!
Among the most beloved carols are those that arise out of–or have much in common with–folk songs. This makes sense because, just as folk song has always been the musical heartbeat of a particular culture, containing its most iconic musical treasures, folksong-based carols have a direct connection to the heart of a people as well. These are typically associated with distinct geographic regions and their respective holiday traditions. Some, like Still, Still, Still (Austria) or Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella (France) may be known across cultural borders, but others, equally beautiful, are virtually unknown outside their specific region. One of the most fascinating aspects of delving into the stories behind Christmas carols is the cultural education such a study imparts. Carols, whether they are American / African-American (I Wonder as I Wander; Go, Tell it on the Mountain), French (People, Look East), German (Lo, How a Rose), English (Forest Green), Basque (The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came), or from any other background, have strong ties to the emotional character and history of their place of origin.
The Victorian "reinvention" of Christmas–which is still essentially at the heart of our own American celebrations–was in reality more the compression of the traditional celebrations of the old 12 Days into two or three, and the conversion of what had always been a period of communal festivity into a more inward-looking celebration of the family. Like the newly introduced Christmas tree, carols were regarded as redolent of the idealized Christmas of yore; traditional carols were gradually admitted by churches of every type alongside the now well-established Christmas hymn. This is certainly true of our Christmas worship traditions here at Westminster.
The carol was finally accorded the serious treatment normally reserved for higher art forms in The Oxford Book of Carols (1928). Percy Dearmer was the guiding spirit, with much input from Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw.
During this holiday season, grab a few well-deserved quiet moments and look through whatever carol collection you have handy, whether that be a hymnal, the Oxford Book of Carols, or a Reader’s Digest collection of family Christmas carols. As you reminisce, let these wonderful carols transport you into Christmas memories from long ago. Allow them to delight you with their timeless optimism, beauty, and joy. Carols have, for centuries, illuminated an otherwise dark and dreary world. . .may they bring you peace and light as well!