Carols have been part and parcel of Christmas since the 4th century. What started off as Christmas hymns has been modified over the years to accompany the celebrations associated with Christmas. The early version of carols was written in Latin and dealt with theological concepts of incarnation. Christmas hymns became a sequence of rhymed stanza in the 9th and 10th centuries thanks to the efforts of some North European Monks particularly Bernard of Clairvaux.
The English version of Christmas carol was first introduced by John Awdlay, a chaplain at Shropshirein 1426. His list of Caroles of Cristemas has twenty five songs that may have been performed by wassailers in groups who used to go from house to house. The early forms of carols were either harvest songs or communal hymns and were not performed in churches in the beginning.
The age of reformation was significant in popularizing the musical form of Christmas carol which then began to be sung in churches at the time of Christmas. Martin Luther a reformist with a strong inclination for music and poetry himself authored carols and tried to popularize its use in church service. The first time any carol was sung in a church inEnglandon the eve of Christmas was in the year 1880 at Truro Cathedral inCornwall. This was later followed by other churches around the world and singing carols as part of Holy Mass on Christmas Eve became an important aspect of Christmas tradition.
The 18th and 19th centuries were crucial in rendering some of the most popular carols ever. Even though the origin of “O Come all ye faithful” (Adeste Fideles) is traced back to the 13th century it attained its present form in the latter half of the 18th century. In 1833, William B. Sandeys published a compilation of lyrics titled Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in which was featured famous carols like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” , “The First Noel”, “I saw three Ships, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” etc.
Carols these days are usually associated with church service and are of themes largely religious. However there are some of them that have non-religious themes but still falls under the category of carols. A typical example is the 16th century lyric “A Bone, God Wot” which is essentially a wassailing song sung while drunken.
Carols was accompanied by some form of dancing in the past. But as time progressed dancing in accordance to the carols lost their significance as it became part of the church service. There have been clues to such a close association of carols with dancing. It is presumed that the word carol might have been derived either from the French word “carole” or from the Latin word “carula” meaning circle dance.
Also carols follow a chord pattern that is typically medieval which is evident in still popular carols like “The Holy and the Ivy”, “Personent hodie”, “Good King Wenceslas” etc. These are perhaps some of the earliest musical compositions that are in use even today.
However hard we try to trace its roots, it is an undeniable fact that carols have gave become an integral part of Christmas celebration.