Singing Christmas carols in the streets is still a tradition in some parts of this country although its has been reduced in significance as young children falteringly sing at your front door ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’’ in the hope that you will part with some money to increase their pre-Christmas funds. ‘How about singing a Christmas carol’ I said to a couple yesterday. ‘We don’t know any’ they replied.
The word carol came from a Greek dance called a choraulein, which was originally accompanied by flute music. The dance later spread throughout Europe and became especially popular with the French, who in time replaced the flute music with singing. People originally performed carols on several occasions during the year. By the 1600’s, carols involved singing only, and Christmas became the main occasion for singing them, and the birth of Jesus their subject.
Most of the popular carols we sing today were originally composed in the 1700’s and 1800’s although often the music goes back to earlier times.
The words of the famous carol “Silent Night” are said to have been written on Christmas Eve in 1818 in Oberndorf, Bavaria. The church organ had broken down and the town was snowbound. The Parish Church’s pastor, Joseph Mohr, wrote the lyrics that evening and handed them to organist Franz Gruber, who composed the original melody for two voices and choir with guitar accompaniment. Just in time for midnight mass! By 1955, “Silent Night” had apparently become the most recorded song of all time, though some pop groups may have beaten them since.
“Some of the imagery in carols have pagan roots, as in Northern Europe, Christmas itself has. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, is an example, where nearly all of the imagery deals with themes of birth and rebirth. The carol “What Child Is This?” is another.
The melody is from the Tudor tune “Greensleeves,” which once featured bawdy lyrics filled with anything but religious imagery. In 1865, William Dix, an Englishman, wrote “The Manger Throne,” and the verses evolved into “What Child Is This?”
For many of us Christmas can’t be Christmas without carols, and many if not most of the churches in the U.K. will celebrate the oncoming festival with services devoted to carols old and new.