Thursday, December 6, 2012

Here We Go Acaroling

This blog is drawn from the book Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols (Halifax, 2010).  Copies are available via and Kindle.

Watch out!
Now that December has rolled around again, chestnuts have begun to roast on the open fire again, silver bells are tinkling everywhere and poor Grandma has to try to dodge those darn reindeer.  At least, in the popular holiday carols.  In reality, it’s tough to find roasting chestnuts anywhere these days, although bells do jangle merrily all over the place.  As for Granny, she’s a goner regardless.

Sometimes, it seems there are only 15 or so Christmas carols – which, in today’s mindset, refers to both religious and secular tunes.  Everyone knows the songs; they are impossible to avoid anyway.  Christmas music fills the malls, booms from radio stations around the country and echoes through the corridors of office buildings.  Invariably, someone shows up at work with a mechanical Santa Claus or tree that breaks into song as soon as anyone activates it by passing nearby.

These days, the most-prevalent seasonal carols are nonreligious.  The familiar hymns and religious melodies, like "Silent Night," are increasingly left for churches, continuing a tradition that dates back thousands of years. 

King David and his lyre
Religious music easily predates Jesus.  Psalms from the Bible, for example, often include musical notations.  Many are credited to David, the second Jewish king of Israel, who reportedly came to his predecessor’s attention by playing the lyre around 1040 BCE.  Ancient pagan festivals around the winter solstice, usually December 21, often included songs.  Participants occasionally indulged in orgies and other wild parties, too.  Christians picked up on the musical idea, although the licentious behavior did not win much support.  In fact, for almost 1,700 years, Christmas was typically celebrated as a solemn occasion with prayer and church services.

Christmas carols were a minor part of the holiday ceremonies until about 800 years after poet Aurelius Prudentius Clemens picked up a quill in the third century BCE and wrote the first versions.  He fasted all day and was rigid in his beliefs, so his Christmas songs were anything but light.  They were called hymns then.  The word “carol” comes from an old French word that slipped into English along with the Normans in the conquest of 1066.  No one is exactly sure of the original meaning of the word, but it may refer to a dance song or a circle dance that came with singing.  Eventually, carol has become associated totally with Christmas songs, eventually supplanting the older term, noel.
St. Francis

Carols became particularly popular in the 1200s when St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) introduced passion plays and singing as a way to tell the Christian story to his illiterate audiences.  He encouraged poets and musicians of his day to enhance prayers with music.   These songs may have started out in Latin, but were often translated into the local vernacular.  Wandering minstrels then carried the music throughout Europe.

None of these carols, or others in separate books, was frivolous.  Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer did not take flight in those days; Frosty the Snowman never danced in the town square.  These songs often dealt with the passion of Christ as well as the lives of saints, the Virgin Mary and apostles.  At times, top classical composers like Brahms and Mendelssohn produced carols, lifting them to a higher form of art.

The invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s helped make sure that popular carols reached an even wider audience.

Except for an occasional performance of ancient carols, most of these songs have vanished.  The current crop began to arrive in the mid-1800s.  They come from every conceivable source and type of music, including classical pieces, oratorios, popular tunes and rock music.

Carolers in Abilene, Texas
Today, carols are one of the basic glues of society.  They link generations.  Parents sang these songs as children with their own parents in a long line stretching back in time.  The songs also herald the start of a season built around such high ideals as peace and happiness.  Failure of humans to achieve these goals does not detract from the annual attempt to try.

In addition, the songs reflect the universal nature of this religious holiday.  The songs permeate every aspect of society and are instantly recognizable, regardless of religious affiliation.  The language may be different in other countries, but the music remains constant, instantly reminding a listener of home and family.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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