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Children singing Christmas Carols
A Christmas carol (also called a noël) is a carol (song or hymn) whose lyrics are on the theme of Christmas or the winter season in general and which are traditionally sung in the period before Christmas.


The tradition of Christmas carols hails back as far as the thirteenth century, although carols were originally communal songs sung during celebrations like harvest tide as well as Christmas. It was only later that carols began to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas.

Carols suffered a decline in popularity after the Reformation in the countries where Protestant churches gained prominence (although well-known Reformers like Martin Luther authored carols and encouraged their use in worship), but survived in rural communities until the revival of interest in carols in the 19th century.

The first appearance in print of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", "The First Noel", "I Saw Three Ships" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" was in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833) by William B. Sandys. Composers like Arthur Sullivan helped to repopularize the carol, and it is this period that gave rise to such favorites as "Good King Wenceslas" and "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear", a New England carol written by Edmund H. Sears and Richard S. Willis.

Today carols are regularly sung at Christian religious services . Some compositions have words which are clearly not of a religious theme, but are often still referred to as "carols". For example, the sixteenth century song "A Bone, God Wot!" appears to be a wassailing song (which is sung during drinking or while requesting ale), but is described in the British Museummarker's Cottonian Collection as a Christmas carol.

It is often difficult to draw a distinction between a Christmas carol and a Christmas song. To be sung by a church choir or sung in the street by amateurs, a song would have to have a fairly rapid, regular beat, which would therefore exclude a meandering crooning song such as "White Christmas". A country music song such as "Blue Christmas" might qualify, but in this case it would have to be adopted by many choirs, over many years to be truly "vernacular", and so far it has failed to gain wide acceptance. The Concise Oxford Dictionary is more generous, as it defines a carol as a "religious song...associated with Christmas".


Traditionally, carols have often been based on medieval chord patterns, and it is this that gives them their uniquely characteristic musical sound. Some carols like "Personent hodie", "Good King Wenceslas", and "The Holly and the Ivy" can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages, and are among the oldest musical compositions still regularly sung.

Though many Christmas carols were written prior to the 20th century, several modern compositions have been written in more recent times. Many of the carols written by Alfred Burt are sung regularly in both sacred and secular settings, and are among the better-known modern Christmas carols.

Church and liturgical use of Christmas carols

Almost all the well known carols were not sung in church until the second half of the 19th century. Hymns Ancient and Modern 1861–1874 included several carols.Isaac Watts, the "father of English hymnody", composed "Joy to the World" which has become a popular Christmas carol even though it is widely believed that Watts did not write it to be sung only at Christmas.

Charles Wesley wrote texts for at least three Christmas carols, of which the best known was originally entitled Hark! How All the Welkin Rings, later edited to Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.In 1840 Felix Mendelssohn wrote a tune in a cantata; William H. Cummings adapted this tune to fit Wesley's words and this combination first appeared in "Hymns Ancient and Modern" in 1861.

Silent Night comes from Austriamarker; the first English translation was in 1871 where it was published in a Methodist hymnal.

Early carols

Nineteenth century antiquarians rediscovered early carols in museums. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, about 500 have been found. Some are wassailing songs, some are religious songs in English, some are in Latin, and some are "macaronic" — a mixture of English and Latin. Since most people did not understand Latin, the implication is that these songs were composed for church choristers, or perhaps for an educated audience at the Royal courts. The most famous survival of these early macaronic carols is the "The Boar's Head". Allegedly, it has been sung at Christ Church Cambridge since 1607. The tradition of singing carols outside of church influence, early in the nineteenth century is best illustrated by Thomas Hardy's novel "Under the Greenwood Tree" (1872). In England and other countries, such as Polandmarker (kolęda), Romaniamarker (colinde) and Bulgariamarker (koledari), there is a tradition of Christmas caroling (earlier known as wassailing), in which groups of singers travel from house to house, singing carols, for which they are often rewarded with gifts, money, mince pies, or a glass of an appropriate beverage. Money collected in this way is now normally given to charity.

Singing carols in church was instituted on Christmas Eve 1880 in Truro Cathedralmarker, Cornwallmarker, Englandmarker (see article on Nine Lessons and Carols), and now seen in churches all over the world. The songs that were chosen for singing in church omitted the wassailing carols, and the words "hymn" and "carol" were used almost interchangeably. Shortly before, in 1878, the Salvation Army, under Charles Fry, instituted the idea of playing carols at Christmas, using a brass band. Carols can be sung by individual singers, but are also often sung by larger groups, including professionally trained choirs. Most churches have special services at which carols are sung, generally combined with readings from scripture about the birth of Christ; this is often based on the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridgemarker.

Carols for dancing

It is not clear whether the word carol derives from the French "carole" or the Latin "carula" meaning a circular dance. In any case the dancing seems to have been abandoned quite early, but some examples are very danceable. In the 1680s and 1690s two French composers incorporated carols into their works. Louis-Claude Daquin wrote 12 noels for organ. Marc-Antoine Charpentier wrote a few instrumental versions of noels, plus one major choral work "Messe de minuit pour Noël".

Christmas carols in classical music

Star singers

In Austria, Belgium and Germany, Christmas is celebrated by some with children dressing as "The Three Kings", carrying a star on a pole. Going from house to house from New Year's Day to January 6, the children sing religious songs and are called "star singers". They are often rewarded with sweets or money, which is typically given to a local church or charity. "C.M.B" is written in chalk on houses they have visited. Although this is sometimes taken as a reference to the three kings — Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar — it may originally have represented the words "Christus mansionem benedicat" (Christ bless this house).

Christmas carols by country


In Australia, where it is the middle of summer at Christmas, there is a tradition of Carols by Candlelight concerts which are held outdoors at night in cities and towns across the country, during the weeks leading up to Christmas. First held in Melbourne, "Carols by Candlelight" is held each Christmas Eve in capital cities and many smaller cities and towns around Australia. Performers at the concerts include opera singers, musical theatre performers and popular music singers. People in the audience hold lit candles and join in singing some of the carols in accompaniment with the celebrities.


A 16th century carol, "Ça, Bergers, assemblons nous", was sung aboard Jacques Cartier's ship on Christmas Day in 1535. Perhaps the best known traditional French carol, "Il est né, le divin Enfant!", comes from the region of Provence. In 1554, a collection of French carols, "La Grande Bible des Noëls", was printed in Orléans. Another collection, "Chants de Noels anciens et nouveau", was printed by Christophe Ballard in Paris.

Germany and Austria

Some carols familiar in English were translations of German Christmas songs (Weihnachtslieder). Two well-known examples are Silent Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht), by the Austrians Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr, and O Christmas Tree (O Tannenbaum), from a German folksong arranged by Ernst Anschütz.

Greece and Cyprus

Greek tradition calls for children to go out with triangles from house to house on Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve and Epiphany Eve, and sing the corresponding folk carols, called the Κάλαντα (Kálanda, the word deriving from the Roman calends). There are separate carols for each of the three great feasts, referring respectively to the Nativity, St. Basil and the New Year, and Jesus' Baptism in the Jordan River, along with wishes for the household. Many carols are regional, being popular in specific regions but unknown in others, whereas some are popular throughout the country. Examples of the latter are the Peloponnesianmarker Christmas carol "Christoúgenna, Prōtoúgenna" ("Christmas, Firstmas"), the Constantinopolitanmarker Christmas carol "Kalēn hespéran, árchontes" ("Good evening, my lords"), and the New Year's carol "Archimēniá ki archichroniá" ("First of the month, first of the year"). In older times, carolling children asked for and were given gifts such as fruit, eggs, nuts or sweets; during the 20th century this was gradually replaced with money gifts — ranging from small change in the case of strangers to considerable amounts in the case of close relatives. Caroling is also done by marching bands, choirs, pupils seeking to raise funds for trips or charity, members of folk societies, or merely by groups of well-wishers. Many internationally known carols, e.g. "Silent Night", "O Tannenbaum" or "Jingle Bells", are also sung in Greek translation.


Christmas carols are very popular in Poland, where they have a long history, the oldest dating to the 15th century or earlier.

United Kingdom

The mass singing in some of the pubs in North Sheffieldmarker and North Derbyshiremarker, which takes place in the second half of November and all December, and which is often referred to as 'The Sheffield Carols', has been described as one of the most remarkable instances of popular traditional singing in the British Isles.


See also


  1. [1] A Bone, God Wot!
  2. carol - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  3. Roman Mazurkiewicz, Z dziejów polskiej kolędy

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