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Christmas Carols History
Originally, Carols were simply songs that were sung during the midwinter festival. Many popular Christmas carols have origins that pre-date Christianity and vanish into pre-history. The word carol comes from the Greek word Choros meaning a “band of singers and dancers”. It was probably used to describe something that was more like our modern folk songs than a religious tune.
Early carols were, like the midwinter festival itself, celebratory and fun at a time when there was very little to laugh about. For many centuries carols had little or no religious content and were simply ancient songs that were sung in midwinter. In fact many harked back to a fiercely pagan past with frequent mentions of Holly and Ivy. The Christian church took a very dim view of these pagan carols and they were strongly discouraged. In 1290 the Council at Avignon actually banned the singing of carols but this had little effect on the common people who loved the old tunes.
In the fifteenth century the church had another go at banning carols but this
attempt met with the same result as their first. Carols were far too popular and
far too much fun to sing. The people simply would not let them go. In fact the
late fifteenth and early sixteenth century saw a ‘Carol revival’ in Britain and
people sang carols openly.
The Puritans had no time for pagan carols and were actually quite frightened of them. So much so, that anyone caught singing carols, particularly in Scotland, was at risk of being accused of witchcraft.
When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, the ban on carol singing was lifted but people had changed their ways and carols were no longer seen as appropriate for Christian festivals. Many churches would not allow the singing of carols in church which led to bands of carol singers standing outside churches to sing. This idea of only singing carols outdoors is why carol singers around the country now traditionally wander from house to house singing at Christmas time. The eighteenth century saw a change in the church and slowly some carols were accepted as part of Christian tradition and permitted back into the church.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing was one of the first to be allowed inside the church, along with While Shepherds Watched their Flocks. Others such as The Holly and the Ivy with its pagan symbolism were still rejected until the late twentieth century.
Today almost all carols are sung in church and new carols appear each year. Few have a tradition approach to Christmas. One recent carol is all about a teenage mother and another makes reference to space travel.
We live in a changing world and this is reflected in the way carols are presented today. In some cases carols are being taken back to their pagan roots and some traditional carols have recently been re-written to exclude any reference to Christianity.