Reds and greens, wrapped gifts, bells, stars, decorated trees, feel-good movies, the plump, snuggly, jolly man shimmying down chimneys, and of course those melodious, soulful, and heartening carols – the ubiquitous signs of Christmas are here!
Yet, did you know that carol singing was not always a staple of the Christmas tradition? Nor was it just about singing. And at one time it was banned in a country! Also, psst… a Thanksgiving song is masquerading as a Christmas carol. What?! Yes, learn about these and more such trivia about those popular songs we call carols…
1. Carols were actually dances
Today, carols are understood to be religious hymns and folk songs sung during Christmas time. But, the word ‘carol’ is believed to have been derived from the French word carole meaning a dance accompanied by singing, which in turn might have been derived from the Latin ‘carula’ meaning circular dance. So, carols were actually dance songs between the mid twelfth and fourteenth centuries.
2. Carols were not unique to Christmas
Carol singing began in Europe and was not specifically sung during Christmas as it is done today. It was sung in all four seasons! It began as part of pagan celebrations celebrating the Winter Solstice (generally December 22). However, it is only the Christmas carols that actually survived as we can see (and hear).
3. Carol singing was banned in England
Yep, it’s true! Carols were sung in secret at one time as there was a ban on celebration of Christmas. This happened in 1644 in England when an Act of Parliament made carol singing illegal! This was enacted by the Puritans, who were ruling then, who felt that it was a frivolous practice very much against their beliefs. Thankfully, it was restored in 1660!
Pop Quiz # 1
- A town-wide sled race inspired this popular carol. Name the carol.
- Deck the Halls
- Jingle Bells
- 12 Days of Christmas
- Joy to the World
(Scroll down for answers)
4. This carol enabled a temporary truce during WW1
Such is the power of music! During World War 1, on Christmas eve, 1914, British soldiers saw some Christmas trees lined up on the German side and heard carol singing. One thing led to another and soon, messages were passed between the trenches. The next day, both British and German soldiers exchanged gifts, buried casualties, repaired trenches, and even played football! Astonishingly, soldiers from the warring nations ate and drank together. While the Germans sang Stille Nacht, the British sang the English version – Silent Night. While this was not across the board, music and the spirit of the season were able to put off fighting for some time on December 25th. Of course, war resumed on December 26th!
5. Jingle Bells was not meant for Christmas!
Incredible right? Written by American songwriter James Lord Pierpont in 1850, Jingle Bells was originally called The One Horse Open Sleigh. Possibly, the most popular and recognised Christmas song, it was originally meant for Thanksgiving! All the same, it has now become well and truly an entrenched part of Christmas celebrations.
6. The first song to be played in outer space was a carol!
Another distinguishing fact about Jingle Bells is that it was also the first song to be played in space! It was on December 16, 1965 during NASA’s Gemini 6A space flight that astronauts from Gemini 6 and 7 played a prank on NASA mission control. They claimed to have seen an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) referring to Santa Claus on his sleigh! To the wondering audience at the base, they then played this famous carol!
Pop Quiz 2:
What do the French call Christmas?
(Scroll down for answers)
7. The first Christmas carol was probably sung in Rome
4th century Rome is said to have sung the first Christmas hymns. These hymns were austere and not very accessible to the masses as they were in Latin. It was in the 13th Century under St. Francis of Assisi of Italy who started Nativity Plays that people started singing songs that were stories during the plays. This spread to other parts of Europe. Songs were sung during harvest time as well as during other festivals. It was only later on that they came to be sung in churches. Christmas carols became more popular with the publishing of Christmas music books in the 19th century.
8. Not all carols are religious
The interesting thing about carols is that while it is mostly a religious celebration about the birth of Jesus Christ, many non-Christian nations also sing it. This is because carols can be regional songs specific to that region or popular songs that transcend national boundaries. Some include folk elements, while others include history, culture, and local stories. This explains the universal acceptance of Christmas carols.
Carol singing around the world
Christmas carols are sung around the world by people in almost every continent, but naturally, in different languages. Every region has its own tradition surrounding singing carols. Some regions start celebrating Christmas on December 6th (Saint Nicholas Day) and in some places singing goes on till February 2nd! Let’s go on a short world tour, shall we?
- In the Southern hemisphere, in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, where Christmas takes place during summer, people sing carols by candlelight to celebrate this season by gathering in parks and singing carols. These celebrations include live performances by celebrities and a symphony orchestra. Australia also has a Jingle Bells summer version that includes bushes and kangaroos.
- Some carols are translations from German songs. For example, O Tannenbaum is Oh Christmas Tree. This carol was based on a folk song. Stille Nacht, popular in English as Silent Night, . Another popular and widely sung Christmas carol is “Herbei, o ihr Gläub’gen”, a German version of Adeste fideles/ O Come, All Ye Faithful.
- In Greece, children sing folk carols (called Kálanda) house to house and receive money gifts. They sing during Christmas eve, New Year’s eve, and Epiphany Eve (on January 6th).
- In Belgium, celebrations start on December 6th when children are left gifts at night and continue till January 6th!
- In Poland, people sing carols until February 2nd! This is to celebrate the feast day of St. Mary of the Candle of Lighting.
- In the US, church and college choirs sing Christmas songs with special programmes. Jingle Bells is the most famous carol here.
- In many Indian houses, you will find Christmas trees and decorations and, of course, groups of carolers spreading joy and festivity in their communities!
Christmas carols from around the world
While the oldest carols date back several centuries, new carols continue to be composed today and so, the universe of Christmas carols just keeps getting bigger and bigger! Celebrate the Christmas spirit by singing carols in different languages across the world:
- “Tu scendi dalle stelle” (You Came a Star from Heaven) – Italian
- Le Petit Renne au nez rouge (Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer) – French
- Stille Nacht (Silent Night) – German
- O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree) – German
- Petit Papa Noël (Little Santa Claus) – French
- Douce Nuit (Silent Night) – French
- Jingle Bells (Summer version) – Australian
- Noche de Paz (Silent Night) – Spanish
- Vamos, Pastores, Vamos (Let’s Go Shepherds, Let’s Go) – Spanish
- Adona Banni (Come, let’s play) – Kannada
Church choirs, college choirs, community groups, and competitions, whichever way you choose to sing Christmas carols, be sure to spread the spirit of the season through music. Here are some popular Christmas carols for you to practise this season! If you would like to sing these and other popular songs with some expert guidance, join Western vocal classes at SaPa.
Sing, be merry, bid adieu to the year gone by, and welcome the new one with hope and cheer!
Pop Quiz # 1 – Jingle Bells
Pop Quiz # 2 – Noël