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The Catholic Defender: The History of Christmas Caroling

Christmas carols in English first appeared in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who lists twenty five 'caroles of Cristemas', probably sung by groups of 'wassailers', who went from house to house.

In 129, Pope Telephorus said that a song called "Angel's Hymn" should be sung at a Midnight Mass in Rome.

Another famous early Christmas Hymn was written in 760, by Comas of Jerusalem, for the Catholic Church. Soon after this many composers all over Europe started to write 'Christmas carols'. However, not many people liked them as they were all written and sung in Latin, a language that the normal people couldn't understand.

This was changed by St. Francis of Assisi when, in 1223, he started his Nativity Plays in Italy.

The people in the plays sang songs or 'canticles' that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and join in! The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.

The earliest carol, like this, was written in 1410.

Sadly only a very small fragment of it still exists. The carol was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Most Carols from this time and the Elizabethan period are untrue stories, very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung in homes rather than in churches! Traveling singers or Minstrels started singing these carols and the words were changed for the local people wherever they were traveling.

it is the religious significance that is most prominent. An obvious example is 'Once in Royal David's City' - a song designed to teach children the story of the birth of Jesus.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” sounds like Gregorian chant, and essentially, it is. It is a paraphrase of the “O” antiphons, each one starting with the exclamation “O,” that are chanted as part of the Liturgy of the Hours as Christmas approaches. The lyrics of the carol go back to the twelfth century or earlier, and the melody at least as far back as the fifteenth century. Interestingly, though the song is sung in many languages all over the world and the same ancient melody is used everywhere, the tune was first put to the lyrics when it was translated into English. So it is specifically the English version that has spread throughout the world.

O Come, All Ye Faithful

 “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is another ancient carol. Probably originally composed by Cistercian monks in the Middle Ages, we can thank an exiled English Catholic for our beloved English version. It was illegal to practice the Catholic Faith in England from 1588 to 1829. John Wade, having escaped to France, had a successful career as a musical copyist known for his beautiful calligraphy. In 1751, he penned “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” the first know version of the carol in English. Did he actually write it? We don’t know for sure, but he gets the credit, anyway.

What Child Is This?

“What Child Is This?” was born out of a near-death experience. In 1865, William Chatterton Dix, a manager at an insurance company, became bed-ridden and depressed after a severe, life-threatening illness. His experience re-ignited his faith, and he authored several hymns, including this one. When it was finally published in 1871, it was set to the tune of “Greensleeves”, a romantic ballad from the sixteenth century about a man serenading his rather aloof lady love.

Silent Night

“Silent Night” was penned in 1818 by a young Austrian priest who asked the church organist to write a melody to be played on the guitar. Why would an organist, who barely knew how to play guitar, use that instrument for Christmas Mass? It would seem the church organ was out of commission. Whether it was damaged by flooding or hungry church mice is unknown, but the result is a simple, touching song that has become one of the most frequently recorded Christmas carols. We have an American Episcopal priest to thank for translating it into English in 1859.

Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

The cheery tune of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” was not the author’s idea. Charles Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, requested a slow, somber melody when he wrote the song in 1739, but apparently it wasn’t terribly popular that way. In 1840, a new collection of carols featured a melody adapted from a cantata by Felix Mendelssohn. The cantata was, interestingly, originally written to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press—a rather unlikely source for a Christmas carol.

O, Holy Night

The hauntingly beautiful “O, Holy Night” was an instant hit, but was banned by the French church soon thereafter. In 1847, a French parish priest asked a local poet to write a Christmas carol, even though the poet’s church practice was a bit shaky. The poet wrote the beautiful lyrics and asked a composer friend to create the music. The magnificent carol quickly spread throughout France, however, the local Church soon discovered that the author was a socialist and the composer Jewish, and banned the song for a time. But the people continued to sing it, and in 1871, on Christmas Eve during the Franco-Prussian War, a French soldier ran out of his trench unarmed and began to sing this carol. Silence fell across the battlefield, and when he was finished, a German soldier came out and sang a favorite German carol. A Christmas ceasefire followed. 

Away in a Manger

An American tune finally hits the list with “Away in a Manger,” written around 1885, but the original promoters claimed it was written by Martin Luther, the German founder of Lutheranism, in the 1500s. Though popular among Pennsylvania Germans, it was unknown in Germany until years later. The song may have been connected with Martin Luther simply because the author of a collection of Christmas songs wanted to make it sound more impressive. Basically, it was a marketing gimmick.

The Little Drummer Boy

“The Little Drummer Boy” is another American original—or is it? Written by a school teacher, Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1940, Mrs. Davis noted on her manuscript “Czech carol freely transcribed by K.K.D.” but did not specify the carol. The story is similar to a twelfth century legend, “The Juggler of Notre Dame.” In the story, the old, poor juggler had no gift for the Christ Child on Christmas. So he went to church on Christmas night, and in front of the statue of Our Lady holding a somber-looking Child, he juggled the best he’d ever juggled, and when he was finished, Jesus was smiling.

God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen

Although none of Blind John’s carols are sung today, “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” goes back almost to his time. This familiar tune is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol, the singing of which so annoyed the old grump that “Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror.”

Christmas carols in the English language first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, an English chaplain, who lists twenty five "caroles of Cristemas", probably sung by groups of wassailers who would travel from house to house.


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