A Short History of Christmas Carols

Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas Carols. They were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced round stone circles. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year around the 22nd December. The word Carol actually means dance or a song of praise and joy. Though Carols were written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas survived.

Early Christians, as with so many Pagan festivities and symbols, took over the solstice celebrations melding them into Christmas celebrations giving people Christian songs to sing to replace the pagan songs. In AD 129, a Roman Bishop stated that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at the Christmas service in Rome. Soon composers all began to write Christmas carols, mostly in Latin, a language that most people could no longer understand. However, by the Middles Ages people began to lose interest in celebrating Christmas.

In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi when began to change the interest in the Christmas Celebrations by creating Nativity Plays where actors sang canticles that told the nativity story. These new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.  The earliest such carol was written in 1410 about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Only a very small fragment of it still exists.

Everything changes when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647, they stopped the celebration of Christmas and singing carols. However, the carols survived as people still sang them in secret. Carols remained mainly unsung until Victorian times, when two men, William Sandys and Davis Gilbert, travelled about the countryside of England and collected old Christmas music, preserving the ancient music for future generations.

During the Victorian era the celebration of Christmas became popularized again and many orchestras and choirs were created in England and people wanted Christmas songs to sing, carols once again became popular. Many new carols were written to satisfy the demand.  At this same time, carols services were created and became popular, as did the custom of singing carols in the streets. The most popular Carols services are the Candlelight services.  These are the services we celebrate today that generate within us a remembrance of that blessing given that night long ago in the stable in Bethlehem.

As we celebrate this Holiday season, I wish for you all the blessings of Christmas, and joy, prosperity and peace in the new year!

Does the carol, the 12 days of Christmas have a hidden meaning?

There’s no evidence that this is true.

It could just a folk song and the meanings were added at a later date.

The 12 Days of Christmas begin on Christmas day and ends on Epiphany, 6th January.  The ‘true love’ represents God. The ‘me’ are the Christian men and women who receive these presents.

The ‘partridge in a pear tree’ is Jesus who died on the cross. In ancient times a partridge was often used as mythological symbol of a divine, sacred king.

The ‘two turtle doves’ are the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. Doves also symbolize peace.

The ‘three French hens’ are ~~ faith, hope and love – the three gifts of the Holy Spirit. (See 1 Corinthians 13). The French hens also represent Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

The ‘four calling birds’ are the four Gospels in the New Testament.

The ‘five golden rings’ are the first five books of the Bible also called the Pentateuch, the Books of Moses or the Torah.

The ‘six geese a-laying’ are the six days of creation.

The ‘seven swans a swimming’ are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. (See 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4:10-11)

The ‘eight maids a milking’ are the eight beatitudes. (See Matthew 5:3-10)

The ‘nine ladies dancing’ are nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22)

The ‘ten lords a-leaping’ are the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20)

The ‘eleven pipers piping’ are the eleven faithful disciples of Jesus.

The ‘twelve drummers drumming’ were the twelve points of the Apostles’ Creed.

How many gifts are there in total in the 12 Days of Christmas?   364!


Filed under writing

2 responses to “A Short History of Christmas Carols

  1. Thanks. Very interesting. Once, in the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai, Thailand (a Buddhist country), we heard the corniest of the corny renditions of familiar christmas carols. A far cry from their origins!

  2. I keep learning and forgetting those numbers. Thank you for a fascinating post.

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