22 December 2009

The Seasons: Christmas Carols

By Lisa Marie Wilkinson

"Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la, la la la la..."

Caroling is a rich oral tradition going back countless generations and suspected to have its roots in feudal societies where the poorest citizens would travel from door to door, often pausing to sing for their supper.

The term "caroling" is thought to be a derivative of the old French carole, a kind of dance, or from the Latin, carula, meaning a circular dance. Carols were originally secular pieces of music associated with traditional folk dances. A celebration of song and dance designed to honor the Winter Solstice; the "Festival of Yule" is believed to have played a part in the evolution of caroling as a Christian tradition.

Early Christians substituted hymns for the pagan songs sung around stone circles. Songs to commemorate the birth of Christ date back to the 4th century, but it took several centuries for traditional somber Christmas music to gradually give way to a new version of carols that incorporated upbeat Latin rhythms and joyous lyrics. St. Francis of Assisi is credited with beginning the popular tradition of the Christmas song with the advent of his nativity plays in the 13th Century.

There are several theories speculating how the practice of caroling--alternately known by the old Norse term, "wassailing"--originated. One theory holds that carolers went door to door because carols were viewed as a pagan custom and they were refused permission to perform the songs in churches. Another hypothesis claims that the practice is actually a pagan custom adopted by Anglo-Saxon peasants, who stopped at the doors of their superiors and proceeded to sing in exchange for a meal or a hot beverage. A hot, spiced beverage known as "wassail" was often served to these impromptu guests.

In 17th century England, the joyous spirit in which carolers serenaded their hosts offended Puritan Oliver Cromwell, resulting in a ban on caroling that lasted for an entire decade. The carols survived because people still sang them in secret; however their popularity had dimmed by the 16th century. The practice of caroling was revived again during the 18th century and experienced a dramatic resurgence in popularity during the 19th century Victorian Era.

Interesting Carol Facts:

"I Saw Three Ships"
First written in the middle ages, this carol married a traditional English folk melody to lyrics written by wandering minstrels. Several versions of the lyrics have existed, with the original believed to describe the skulls of the three wise men being carried by vessel to Cologne cathedral in Germany. The version sung today features a tale of Mary and Joseph as they travel to Bethlehem.

"Silent Night"
An Austrian priest wrote the lyric in 1816, and the words were fitted to a melody by his friend Franz Gruber in 1818. The carol made its debut when performed by its writers in a midnight mass Christmas service that same year. The original German lyric was translated into English in 1863 and in 1914 "Silent Night" became the first carol sung to mark the Christmas Truce during World War I because it was the only carol known by soldiers on both sides.

"Jingle Bells"
This perennial Christmas favorite was actually composed by James Pierpont in 1857 as a song to commemorate Thanksgiving, and was originally titled, "The One Horse Open Sleigh."

"The First Noel"
Although words and melody were not published together until they appeared in a collection of hymns in the early nineteenth century, this carol dates back to the dramatizations of Biblical stories known as Mystery Plays in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

"Ave Maria"
With a melody rooted in liturgical chants dating back to the tenth century and words derived from an old Roman Catholic prayer based upon biblical scripture Luke 1:28, "Ave Maria" is felt by many to be the most sacred of hymns. The version of the hymn we celebrate today was orchestrated by composer Franz Schubert in 1825.

"Joy to the World"
Although the lyric was eventually traced and validated as having originated from the Old Testament, the American composer, Lowell Mason, credited the lyric to George Handel when setting the words to music in 1839, in an effort to ensure the popularity of the song. For over a century Handel was erroneously credited with having written the lyric until music historians were able to prove the true author of the lyric: King David.

With the invention of radio and recorded media, we can now enjoy our favorite carols sung by our favorite artists at any time of the year. These days, carols invoke the season as much as the scents of holiday baking, decorated Christmas trees, special church celebrations, and the sighting of Santas in every mall.