It’s advent and that means for millions of singers that means fighting the cold and colds to make it out to thousands of choir practices, concerts and carol services. Music is a huge part of what makes us all feel Christmassy, and it’s one of the few seasons when even the most mainstream radio stations don’t mind playing songs that sing about Jesus. But where did all our Christmas music come from? And why do we call them carols?

Carols didn’t begin life as synonymous with Christmas. A carol was an early form of dance music which had nothing to do with the Christian celebrations on the 25th of December. Instead, it was called a carol because the dance was performed in a circle. There were also lyrics which were in a call and response style, much like the famous chant song “Everywhere we go!”. This form of vibrant and enthusiastic music lent itself well to processions, and by the 14th century the carol had been adopted for parades for religious festivals.

The earliest music that we now call “Christmas” carols were written for mystery plays. These were performances of bible stories which were organised in towns and villages at festival seasons.  Often different guilds would take different parts of the story, and I like to imagine them like a town-wide version of a school nativity play (although that is probably not at all accurate!). One of the earliest carols we still sing is the Coventry Carol, a tune which is about the events after Jesus’ birth when King Herod ordered the slaughter of all the babies under two years old in Bethlehem (click here to read the story in the bible).

Another early example of this era is the song Adam Lay Y Bounden. This song is thought to have been recorded by a travelling minstrel because it’s lyrics are first recorded in a manuscript showing other songs known to be popular at the time among minstrels. However, this song is deeply rich in Medieval theology which suggests a more religious origin that is now impossible to trace. The song starts with the story of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3, and goes on to tell of the redemption of humanity through the coming of Jesus. No music survives from the original composition, so the words have been set in several different ways over the years. The arrangement below is by Peter Warlock.

Some other examples of old, traditional songs which have unknown origins likely dating back to the 15th or 16th century include The Holy and the Ivy, The Boars’ Head Carol and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. All of these carols reflect the wider Christmas traditions which were borrowed from pagan rituals. The Holly and the Ivy speaks about the practice of bringing in greenery which were originally pagan fertility symbols, but were adopted by Christians. The Boars’ Head Carol describes the preparation of a boars’ head as the Yuletide meal, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas also speaks about food, and the importance of sharing hospitality with neighbours.

Many other Christmas carols are also set to popular tunes which are much older than their lyrics, such as Past Three O Clock (early 20th century) which is set to the tune London Waits (from the 1600s).

Of course, this being Advent, the final carol we still sing which is from this early era of Christmas music is O Come, O Come Emmanuel. This is another hymn which probably has a monastic or religious origin, as it was originally written in Latin. The lyrics speak of Jesus in the context of Jewish history including the exodus from Egypt and his direct earthly line back to King David. The song is strictly for advent as each verse repeats the line “O come, o come…” as the singers await the day when they can celebrate the birth of Jesus.

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This is the first in a four part series on Christmas songs posted over Advent 2013. Do you have a favourite Christmas carol? Comment below!

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