Genre of the Week: Christmas Carols

I'm on christmas vacation in the north of Sweden (therefore the lack of posts this week), so what could be more appropriate than a rather older and more festive genre of popular music? I was originally going to do christmas pop songs, but the history of carols proved fascinating enough to do on their own, so I'm saving that one for next year.

So what's a christmas carol? A "carol" is a type of English secular song that has some sort of seasonal theme, starting in the middle ages but blossomming in the renaissance. They often have religious components but were not performed in church or at religious events. A lot of original carols still exist in print or manuscripts, especially from the late renaissance onwards, but precious few are still sung regularly. (The ones that do have usually moved into the church setting.) The practice died out with the puritan interregnum when festivities were banned.
No, a christmas carol isn't a real carol at all. It's a pastiche. Or a bowdlerised update. (Who would write a carol about slaying children today?) The vast majority are written during the romantic era of the 19th century, when fascination with folk history and early popular music was at its highest and most warped. With little attention to actual history (and a lot of attention to "grand traditions" and "morality"), the Victorians cut up, rewrote, nicked melodies, copied and parodied in order to create acceptable music for the young national spirit.

Take, I dunno, "Deck The Halls". It's hundreds of years old and has absolutely nothing to do with christmas originally (being a new year's song). In 1881 a new lyric was written by a man named J. P. McCaskey and suddenly it became a "traditional" christmas carol. "Ding Dong Merrily On High" is a few notches worse, with its ridiculous faux-mediaeval lyrics (from 1924!) and its melody stolen from a renaissance French dance book. "Good King Wencelas" is (funnily enough) Swedish originally, and a spring song at that, updated in 1850s by an english pastor.

Quite a few others, like "We Three Kings" or "O Holy Night", are original compositions. A few ("Joy To The World", "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing") are resecualrised hymns and probably the most "genuinely traditional" of the bunch. But practically none are actually carols...

So what's so special about the 19th century that has left these songs behind and imprinted them so deeply into tradition? This period is when a lot of today's christmas traditions first appeared, of course, like christmas trees and santa claus, but that just raises the futher question of why all the traditions seemingly originate here.

I think it's because this period of increased modernism and the accompanying industrial revolution was causally accompanied by a move towards secularisation - carols, trees and santas represent the establishment of a rival christmas tradition to that of the church. That might also explain why the new carols were based in spirit on the older secular tradition and not on the bountiful christmas tradition of church music.

Once our secular christmas tradition was established it seemingly became very hard to move. I've not found any frequently performed christmas carols written later than 1941. After that, everything carolesue has been classified as a christmas song, and that, dear children, is a different story entirely.

Merry Christmas everyone!


wayne&wax said...

Neat post! Along the lines of your industrialization thesis, I wonder whether (i.e., I suspect) the introduction of recordings wasn't a crucial reason for the consolidation of today's X-mas canon? I mean, sure, sheet music goes some way toward influencing things, but I imagine a lot of these songs would have changed and dropped out of use and been replaced had we not been convinced by Bing Crosby, et al., that certain Christmas songs have always been and will always be. Ah, Christmas in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Birdseed said...

Yeah, that's a good point. It also connects to why the "Hollywood christmas songs" (Silver Bells, White Christmas, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer etc.) have such staying power.

Anonymous said...

Changing the subject slightly; have you heard of the carolling tradition around Sheffield in Yorkshire, England. Carols are often sung in pubs, and it seems have been for 200 years. Many local carols exist.
There's some info at:
And some sound clips at:

Birdseed said...

That's an interesting tradition - I'm curious about how it's started, the repertoire stems from an earlier period of carol creation it seems.