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Those traditional Christmas carols                                                     November 2009 


Those traditional Christmas carols

Christmas carolsHere in Britain Christmas is an important occasion and encompasses a number of traditional ideas such as gift giving and a festive meal. Another major tradition of Christmas is the singing of carols – Christmas carols are still enormously popular and are sung both in churches and at many other events over the festive period.

In fact carols are so much part of many people’s traditional Christmas celebrations that it comes as a surprise to learn that really they are quite a modern development. They originated from ancient songs that were sung in midwinter; harking back to our pagan past possibly celebrating the winter solstice, with many mentions of holly and ivy. The word carol comes from the Greek work chorus meaning band of singers and dancers. The Greeks were and still are enthusiastic singers and dancers at festive occasions and the word carol was probably used to describe a folk song at a midwinter celebration rather than anything specifically religious.

The religious leaders did not like these carols at all – they were considered pagan, irreligious and were strongly discouraged. In the 13th century a region in southern France banned the singing of carols totally – although of course enforcing this law against people having a quiet sing along in their own homes was impossible.

So carols continued. In the 15th century the church again issued a ban against carols, but again did not manage to stamp them out. Finally in 1640 carol singing was banned by an act of Parliament here in the UK. In Scotland, anyone caught singing carols was at risk of being accused of witchcraft with dire consequences.

By the time Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660 and the ban on carol singing was lifted, it was almost too late. People had lost the habit of singing carols and they were not seen as appropriate for Christian festivals. But music is a fundamental of the human nature, and singing, and indeed limited carol singing, continued – although not in churches where it was still banned.

It is thought it was this ban and the fact that people had to stand outside their church to sing carols that led to the idea of carol singing out of doors and groups of carol singers going from house to house .

In the 18th century there was a change and some carols were gradually accepted into the church to be sung over the Christmas period. Charles Wesley, one of the founding fathers of the Methodist denomination of Christianity, wrote Hark the Herald Angels Sing in 1743 and along with While Shepherds Watch their Flocks by Night, was one of the first Christmas carols to be allowed to be sung in church.

Since then numerous carols have been written, and come into and out of favour. The Holly and the Ivy, with its pagan symbolism, was rejected by many churches until the late 20th century, but many churches today are happy to introduce new carols featuring more modern themes than angels and shepherds.

Today there are a number of top favourite traditional Christmas carols including: Come all Ye Faithful; Good King Wenceslas; The First Noel; God Rest You Merry Gentlemen; Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; Once in Royal David’s City; Silent Night and While Shepherds Watched their Flocks.

There is a website that gives the history of some of the most popular carols and it is interesting to see just how modern some of them are. That classic Christmas carol Once in Royal David’s City was only written in the 19th century – by Mrs C F Alexander, the wife of the Bishop of Derry. Mrs Alexander wrote the words and an H. J. Gauntlett composed the music.

Angels from the Realms of Glory was written by an Irishman called James Montgomery in 1816, with music composed by Henry Smart. The lyrics tell the story of the shepherds, sages and saints.

While Shepherds Watched Their Flock dates back to earlier times, the early 18th century when the words were written by the then Poet Laureate Nahum Tate together with Nicholas Brady at a time when only the Psalms of David were sung in the Anglican church. The melody was taken from “Siroe”, an opera by Handel.

Good King Wenceslas dates from Finland. The words were written by John Mason Neale in the 1850s but the music originates in Finland 300 years earlier. Good King Wenceslas was the king of Bohemia in the 10th century, a Catholic who was martyred after his assassination by his brother Boleslaw and his supporters.

Silent Night originates from a poem that was written in 1816 by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian priest from a small alpine village of Oberndorf. The story goes that on Christmas eve in 1818 the organ at the local St Nicholas Church had broken, so Joseph gave his poem to his friend Franz Xavier Gruber who composed the simple tune that could be played by guitar. It was ready in time for Midnight Mass and went on to become the most famous Christmas carol of all time.

We Three Kings of Orient Are was written in 1857 by Rev. John Hopkins, believed to be part of his contribution to a Christmas pageant being held by the General Theological Seminary in New York City.

The words to Oh Come All Ye Faithful were originally written in Latin (Adeste Fideles) and attributed to Englishman John Wade, with the music composed by John Reading in the early 1700s. In 1841 a Rev. Frederick Oakley is reputed to have worked on the familiar English translation sung today.



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