Christmas Carols – The Origins
Christmas carols have been sung for centuries in countless countries all over the world. Some of the original carols were written in Latin and were used as hymns rather than songs to be sung at Christmas, whilst others were not songs at all. There are some carols that are used today which were written with the purpose of being uses as prayers or stories.
The first carols came to us from across Europe thousands of years ago in the form of pagan and songs that celebrate the coming of the winter solstice rather than the Christmas carols that we now know them to be. The winter solstice was celebrated around the 22nd of December, as the days nights begin to grow shorter.
Although this explains where the idea of singing songs in December began, it does not explain how the tradition of Christmas carols started. The early Christians took on the idea of singing carols to celebrate the birth of their saviour Jesus Christ, and would sing these hymns in Latin as the Christmas service was held in Rome.
St. Francis of Assisi understood that the people weren’t interested in learning Latin just to sing the carols, and so when he developed his Nativity plays in Italy; St. Francis would ensure that the majority of the play was written in a language that the audience would understand, and so more people would come to view the play.
Some of the most famous Christmas carols to date were not originally intended to be songs, there are a few that were written as poems or prayers before being altered and set to music; Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria is an example of this. Ave Maria was written as an excerpt from the poem “The Lady of the Lake”, and was originally named Ellens dritter Gesang (Ellen's third song). The excerpt includes various references to the prayer “Ave Maria”, and it is believed this is why the excerpt was named after it.
Another Christmas carol that was written as a poem before becoming a traditional carol is “Silent Night”. Silent Night was written by an Austrian priest who went by the name of Joseph Mohr; it’s said that Mohr wrote this poem on the eve of Christmas in 1818 as the organ at St. Nicholas church had broken and they were in need of a song that they could sing instead. Silent Night was composed with the idea of being played to a guitar against a melody by Franz Xavier Gruber.
However, there are other famous carols that were written with the intent of being sung at a Christmas service in the form of a hymn. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was asked by a priest in his church if he would write a poem, and so he did; this resulted in the popular piece titled “O Holy Night”. After writing the piece Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure decided that it should be accompanied by music, and so with the aid of his friend Adolphe Charles Adams he developed a piece of music that his poem could be sung to.
There are many other Christmas carols that have their own interesting histories, for more information on Christmas carols or winter celebrations you can enquire at your local church or bookmark our UK Christmas World blog, for professional advice on everything Christmas.