The idea of Christmas caroling brings to mind a jolly band of churchgoers, dressed in shawls and top hats, going door-to-door spreading the spirit of Christmas through hymns. Whether it's "Deck the Halls", "Joy to the World" or "Silent Night", Christmas Carolers have been known to travel on foot, by truck or on horseback. Despite a recent re-examining of caroling's political correctness, including one incident where carolers were banned from marching in a prominent parade in Denver. It remains a popular Christmas tradition. But how exactly did this tradition begin? Who wrote the carols? And why do we feel compelled to sing them on the front porch of a total stranger's home?
The root of the word "carol" lies not in song, but in dance. In Old French, "carole" means "kind of dance". In Latin "choraula" means "a dance to the flute", and in Greek, "choraules" means "flute player who accompanies the choral dance". Although there are some carols centering around religion, the songs were originally secular--up-tempo melodies with alternating choruses and verses associated with traditional dances. Like many other Christmas traditions, caroling is also thought to have its roots in the pre-Christian celebration of the Festival of Yule, when Northern Europeans would come together to sing and dance to honor the Winter Solstice. As carols evolved into a Christian tradition, they became hymns, having little relation to any type of dance.
History of Caroling
There's no definitive history behind Christmas caroling. Where they originated, who wrote them and how the evolved is unclear. Caroling is an oral tradition, passed down from genteraiton to generation.
Carols commemorating the nativity, or birth of Jesus Christ, were purportedly first written in Latin in the 4th and 5th centuries, but they didn't become associated with Christmas until the 13th century. Saint Francis of Assisi, the Roman Catholic saint of animals and the environment, is often credited with incorporating upbeat Latin hymns into Christmas services. The energetic, joyful carols were sung in sharp contrast to the somber Christmas music of the day. The concept of Christmas carols, and spreading them to the community to celebrate Christ's birth, is thought to have spread across Europe.
Today, many caroling groups sing for charity in churches and neighborhoods; some historical accounts claim this is rooted in fuedal societies, when poor citizens would "sing for their supper" in exchange for food or drink. Another theory is that carolers traveled door-to-door because they were not originally allowed to perform in churches. Other's say this idea didn't until the 16th century, when Anglo-Saxon peasants adapted these pagan customs, when they went wassailing, requesting nourishment from their superiors in exchange for singing good tidings.
Wassail was a thick, hot spiced beverage that helped keep the traveling well-wisher warm; in its heyday, the drink was just as much a holiday tradition as eggnog in modern times. As wassailing evolved, with children often going door-to-door, it became more associated with Christmas and caroling. Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas celebrations in England from 1649 to 1660 ( he believed Christmas should be a serious holiday, and celebrated accordingly), and caroling did not experience a surge in popularity until the 19th century, when it's thought that the joyful, expressive hymns were well-received in the Victorian Era.
A common legend says that Christmas carols were named after Carol Poles, a little English girl who supposedly went missing in London during the holiday season in the late 19th century. People supposedly searched for her by going door-to-door, singing to declare their good intentions. although it may be a nice story, it has no factual basis.