Christmas Caroling: A Grassroots Tradition

There is, perhaps, no Christmas tradition more neighborly and friendly than caroling. No matter what the song, Christmas caroling spreads the true spirit of Christmas throughout December. As a child, teen, and even as an adult, I’ve sung carols like Buddy the Elf with groups in retirement centers, nursing homes, city neighborhoods, and even on country farms. However, for most of my life I had no idea how Christmas caroling actually began. 

Let’s start with the carols themselves.

The original carols had their roots in the pre-Christian Festival of Yule, when Europeans would sing and dance to honor the Winter Solstice. The word “carol” has its roots in the Latin word “choraules” which means “a dance to the flute.” The original carols were mostly fun secular, upbeat songs accompanied with dances often performed with a group. Overtime, carols became more associated with Christianity and became more hymnlike and therefore resulted in less dancing (Sorry, Mariah Carey).

Christmas carols themselves thrived as more of a grassroots tradition. Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have first incorporated upbeat carols into informal (and sometimes impromptu) Christmas services in creative ways. He built nativity scenes in caves complete with live animals. The villagers would gather and listen as he taught them about the birth of Jesus. Then, they all joined in singing early versions of Christmas carols. These energetic, joyful carols were often sung with gusto, as in Celebration, in sharp contrast to the traditional somber Christmas music of the day. It’s no wonder these simple songs spread quickly across the Christian world, especially Europe. 

Christmas caroling actually grew out of the Anglo-Saxon custom of wassailing, where the carolers received sustenance in exchange for their singing. This custom derives its name from the drink “wassail,” which was a hot spiced beverage. Over time, wassailing became associated with Christmas and carols. Ironically, the practice of caroling out of doors grew somewhat because of Oliver Cromwell, who banned Christmas celebrations in England from 1649 to 1660. As you can imagine, the persecution of the day most likely put a damper on the outright practice of singing carols in organized services. However, what’s to stop someone from singing Christmas Carols outdoors as they travel to and fro? Even after Cromwell’s time in power ended, caroling did not really experience growth until the 19th century, when joyful, more expressive hymns became more popular across England and Europe. During this time, some caroling groups gathered in public spaces to sing while others went from house to house. Today, the practice of Christmas caroling continues to bring joy to those singing and those hearing, with or without the wassail.

This Christmas season, from December 1st – 25th, I plan to highlight the history of 25 Christmas carols, most of which have been sung at one point or another by Christmas carolers. Some of them are currently extremely popular while others have been all but forgotten. Regardless, I’ve found them all fascinating and I plan to learn as much about them in the next month. I invite you to join me for the journey. 

Merry Christmas

*Image courtesy of Mario Mendez

One thought on “Christmas Caroling: A Grassroots Tradition

  1. Pingback: Christmas Caroling: A Grassroots Tradition — JohnJFrady | Vermont Folk Troth

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