These days, it seems one can’t say the word carol without Christmas attached to it.
However, carols didn’t start as strictly Christmas songs. In fact, they weren’t even necessarily religious.
The word started as the Greek word choraules and described a dance. By medieval times, different spellings of the word had come into the French and Anglo-Saxon languages to describe various styles including pagan dance music, a courtly dance or a religious procession. And between 1350 and 1550, the carol took on a religious angle as well as a specific verse structure.
In the Middle Ages, the church adopted this more appealing song style in the liturgy, moving away from chants and ancient Latin hymns. The songs were often used in plays or living Nativities, made popular by St. Francis of Assisi. The Franciscans in Italy were involved in making the carol a Christian song. This song style spread to France and Germany in the 14th century. Franciscans also brought Christmas carols to the British Isles. The earliest British carol was found in sermon notes from a Franciscan friar before 1350.
From the 1400s to about 1550, a handful of tunes and about 500 carol texts survive. Most refer to Virgin Mary, Christ child or saints with feast days near Christmas. Some are for Easter, and some are love songs or satire.
The Reformation, which just marked its 500th anniversary, brought an end to the use of carols in British churches. Metrical psalms were the only music considered appropriate in church.
However, carols remained popular in homes and rural churches.
And Martin Luther, considered the man who started the Reformation, used folk music and popular songs in Germany to write Christian lyrics for congregations.
In 1660, the official ban on carols ended and a new hymnal was published, but many churches continued to feel the music was inappropriate and were unwilling to use carols. “While Shepherds Watched” was the one Christmas-based hymn allowed.
In 1739, a version of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” appeared. However, it was set to a solemn melody. The lyrics were altered some in 1758 and again in 1782. In 1855, it was set to the upbeat melody heard most often today.
Carols made a comeback in the second half of the 18th century and many of the familiar Christmas songs came in the Victorian era in the late 1800s.
1740: "Adestes Fidelis," later translated to "O Come All Ye Faithful," is written
1818: "Silent Night" is written
1822: First modern collection of carols is published, compiled to preserve the old songs.
1833: Another collection is published, this one rescuing "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "The First Nowell (Noel)" and "I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In"
1843: Carol collection that includes wassail songs published
1847: "O Holy Night" introduced
Late 1800s: "Once in David's Royal City," "Away in a Manger," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "We Three Kings of Orient Are" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”