The history of Caroling at Christmas

Greetings and Merry Christmas to all of our readers. I hope as the end of 2013 approaches that all is happy and bright with you and yours.

Each year, it is a bit of a problem for us that the first two weeks of December are crammed with local activities and events in the arts, but as the month progresses, Chautauqua County residents are busy preparing their own celebrations and shoveling themselves out of snow drifts, and a feeling of quiet descends upon us.

For the past three years, we have used the last column before Christmas to have some fun, with trivia quizzes and arts-related games. Many of our readers have written or phoned to report that they have enjoyed these, but this year, when I looked into doing the same, it seemed that all of the books and computer websites which I consulted were just repeating the same information which we had shared in previous years.

Instead, I thought it would be interesting to look into the background of some of the beloved Christmas music which is such an important part of our culture, and that you might enjoy looking at that information, as well. I certainly hope so. As always, we are at the mercy of the books and computer sites which we consulted. We can promise that we have reported what they told us. Especially with websites, sometimes the people who write them indulge themselves in some creativity which isn’t readily recognizable to me. In plainest terms, I can’t promise the accuracy of everything in the column.

Fortunately, no one is going to win or lose hundreds of thousands of dollars based on these, so I hope you enjoy them, in the spirit in which they are written.


Most people think of the most commonly sung music of the holiday as Christmas carols. In fact, the idea of carols goes back well before the arrival of Christianity in Western Europe.

The word “carols” was used for songs which celebrate something. These pieces of music almost always were danced, as well as sung, and were often performed at stone circles, such as the famous one at Stonehenge, in England. The most popular time for carols was the first of May, which was often celebrated in Europe as the boundary beyond which winter weather could safely be expected to remain absent. Those who are familiar with the Broadway musical “Camelot,” will note that the show’s score contains a modern May Day Carols, (“The Lusty Month of May.”) Like Lerner and Lowe’s energetic offering, May Day Carol were often centered around the belief that men and women especially enjoy one another’s company at that time of year.

As Christianity gradually moved throughout the Roman Empire and even reached beyond its borders, Christian leaders found that pagans might be willing to accept Christian teaching, but they were emotionally tied, very strongly, to many of their own pagan or nature-based ceremonies. Many of the earlier converting leaders found it easier to allow the ceremonies to continue, but to give them Christian meanings. Just as one example of this, out of many, there is the custom of dancing around a May Pole, with each dancer holding a ribbon which was attached to the very top of the pole, so that when the dancing ended, the ribbons were tightly braided around the pole.

This was made into a celebration in honor of the Virgin Mary, and a young woman who was considered the most moral and virtuous was often chosen “Queen of the May,” to represent Mary, or to offer a crown of flowers to a statue of Mary. American author Jean Kerr wrote quite a funny short story called, “I Was the Queen of the May,” in which she describes her own astonishment to have been chosen for that honor, as a ninth grader at a Catholic parochial school, until her enthusiasm was dashed by the actual ceremony, in which she realized that the statue was quite tall, and she was the tallest girl in the school, and the only student with any possibility of getting that crown onto its head.

The first recorded evidence of a Christmas carol was a signed order, in the year 129, by a Roman bishop, ordering each church in his diocese to sing a particular song on Christmas Day. He referred to the song as “Angel Hymn,” but no evidence of words nor music remains. Early Christmas carols were sung in Latin, which was the base language of the entire Empire, but as imperial power failed and people found themselves more and more dependent upon their own strength and ingenuity to keep themselves safe, the language Latin began to disintegrate, everywhere but inside the Church, itself.

Ask a person in France what language he was speaking, he would have said “Latin,” but in fact his style of speech was moving toward French. The same could be said in Italy, Spain, Portugal and other countries, moving toward Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc. One computer site says that by the early 1200s, celebrating Christmas had become rare and unimportant to the majority of people.

In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi decided that Christmas needed to be made more readily accessible to people who lacked education and much communication with people outside their small villages. He encouraged his followers to write and perform Nativity Plays, which acted out the story of Christ’s birth, in bold, basic ways which were easy for common people to understand. Soon writers of these plays began to introduce simple songs, which people found easy to learn and remember, as part of the plays.

Songs from that period are often allegorical, rather than taken from the Bible. The famed “Coventry Carol,” for example tells that while traveling to Bethlehem with Mary, Joseph is angered to learn that she was pregnant, because he knew that he wasn’t the father, and refuses to fetch her food, so the infant Jesus, in her womb, commands a cherry tree to bend its branches to the ground so that she might reach its fruit.

The still-popular “I Saw Three Ships” is believed by one author I consulted to have been composed to celebrate the arrival at Cologne Cathedral, in Germany, of the remains of the Three Kings, which were brought back – or were believed to have been brought back – from Crusade by German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. The carol tells of the arrival at Bethlehem of the three ships of the title, to fetch the skeletal remains, which would have been an extraordinary event, since Bethlehem is not on a seacoast, nor on a river.

In the mid-17th century, King Charles I of England was overthrown and executed by a Puritan Revolution, led by Oliver Cromwell, who established a military dictatorship. Since the Puritans believed Christmas was an event to be devoutly acknowledged, rather than celebrated, nearly all Christmas-related music was suppressed. Fortunately for future years, many English people sang the songs in private and taught them to their children, often as lullabies, and when kings returned to the throne, after Cromwell’s death, the songs emerged from hiding.

The returned songs remained largely private, in-the-home events, however until 200 years later, when two men named William Sandys and Davis Gilbert traveled around the island of Britain and compiled a volume of carols, which became the delight of Victorian England.

In the Church of England, which exists in the U.S. as the Episcopal Church, it became popular, on Christmas Eve or during the 12 days of Christmas, to do a service of nine lessons and carols, in which a Bible or other faith-centered reading is followed by a song or two, ideally on the same theme, followed by another reading, etc. Many Americans, upon visiting Episcopal churches during the weeks before Christmas, are surprised to learn that carols are saved to celebrate on Christmas and the 12 days following, and as late as tomorrow, the church will be singing Advent hymns, such as “Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel,” or “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” Some people refer to these, less joyous hymns as “Advent Carols.”

The Lessons and Carols service which is best-known is that which is performed in the chapel at Kings College, in Cambridge University, England, which are broadcast around the world on various radio networks. The website of Kings College advises that the service begins at 1:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and that admission to the service is on a first-come, first-served basis. An advisory suggests that anyone who has gotten into the line by 9 a.m. usually makes it into the service, although that cannot be promised. Ushers are sent to count the number of people in line, and when the capacity of the chapel is reached, anyone seeking to join the line is advised that he is unlikely to be admitted.

The services began in 1918, as a celebration of the end of World War I, which ended just over a month before the first service was held. The first broadcast of the service took place in 1928, and has taken place every year since, even during World War II, when it was held, even though the chapel is unheated, and all the glass had been removed from the windows, to protect it from Nazi bombs.

The service always begins with a solo singing of the first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City,” by a boy soprano. Since 1982, the college has commissioned one new carol from a contemporary composer, each year. In 1965, the services were televised, as well. While the tradition of the service is often attributed to Cambridge, other churches, both inside the Anglican Communion, and in other faiths have claimed to be its origin.


A personal favorite carol of my own has always been “Good King Wenceslas,” although most people only know the first verse, which makes little or no sense. The verse suggests that on Dec. 26, the second day of Christmas, which is also the feast day of St. Stephen, the faith’s first martyr, King Wenceslas looked out the window of his palace and saw a poor peasant, out in the freezing cold, trying to find tree branches or other wood to keep his house warm.

Those who get beyond that first verse find that the King orders a page at his court – traditionally a boy between ages seven and 14 – to gather food and pine logs, and to go with him to help the struggling peasant. The boy obeys, but begins to falter in the bitter cold, until the saintly king tells the boy to walk in the king’s own footsteps, whereupon the page feels warmer and stronger, until his errand is accomplished.

According to “,” which is a major source of this column, the events of the carol are not historical. The carol was written in the small English town of East Grinstead, in the 19th Century. The actual Wenceslas lived in the 10th century, in Bohemia, which today is part of the Czech Republic. The king’s biography states that he died in his 28th year.

Wenceslas was born to a Christian father and a pagan mother. The king’s father died when his son was 12 years old. Since local law prohibited a king from claiming the throne before the age of 18, his mother took over the reins of government, as regent. She undertook to reverse the kingdom’s conversion to Christianity. But, Wenceslas’ paternal grandmother secretly taught the boy the lessons of Christianity, and when he reached legal adulthood, he returned his government to Christian principles, sending his mother and those siblings who would not accept Christianity into exile.

One of his mother’s last acts as regent was to have the grandmother strangled.

Wenceslas is credited with having installed a fair and reasonable set of laws, and with defending his kingdom against invasions by neighboring rulers. Sadly, he was eventually murdered by his younger brother. The poem about his helping of the freezing peasant was written in 1847 by Czech poet Vaclav Svoboda, who spent much of his life writing histories and poetry which he tried to claim dated back centuries, making Czech history older and more substantial than those of any of the neighboring countries.

In the 19th century, Englishman J.M. Neale came across a translation of the poem, and fitted it to a May Day carol from Scandinavia called “Now It Is Time for Flowering,” or “Tempus Adest Floridum.” That is the form which we sing it today.


There is a legend about the carol “Silent Night,” which is well known. Mice had chewed upon the bellows of the pipe organ, in a small church in the Alps Mountains, of Austria. The parish priest, Father Josef Mohr, took out his guitar and played the music which his organist, Franz Gruber, had written to be sung for the Midnight Mass, on Christmas Eve by a children’s choir.

Actually, Father Mohr invited his organist to compose a song, to be performed with words of the priest’s invention, to accompaniment on solo guitar, for Midnight Mass at Christmas, 1818. The song was written to be sung by the priest and the organist, as a duet, with an adult choir repeating the last two lines at the end of each verse. The children’s choir which plays an important role in the legend is nowhere to be found, in the parish’s histories.

The original words to the carols translate as this:

Silent Night, Holy Night

Bethlehem Sleeps, Yet what light,

Floats around the heavenly pair,

Songs of Angels fill the air,

Strains of Heavenly Peace,

Strains of Heavenly Peace.

The priest died a few years after the composing of the popular carol. Gruber claimed for many years to be the composer, but he was not believed, and it was published with the music attributed to various composers, including Mozart and Beethoven. Eventually, a copy in Mohr’s handwriting was discovered in which he attributed the music to Gruber.

The song was imported into the U.S. in 1863, in the midst of the American Civil War. During World War I, there are stories of soldiers in the trenches hearing the carol being sung by soldiers in the enemy trench, and even of the warriors on both sides joining to sing the song together, across No Man’s Land. Heavenly peace, indeed.


Perhaps the carol which is most often misunderstood, today, is the lengthy, repetitive “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” On the surface, the song recounts the many Christmas gifts given the singer by his or her “true love.” In the 1990s, according to, a website which specializes in debunking what it calls “urban legends,” a story grew up that the song’s lengthy list of gifts were actually a tool in which Roman Catholics, prohibited by law from practicing their religion by a protestant government, passed along the principles of their faith to their children.

In the 15th and 16th Centuries, many countries in Europe divided between those who offered allegiance to the Pope, as head of the Roman Catholic Church, and those who gave their allegiance to a variety of Christ-based but non-Catholic religions. For this reason, non-Catholic religions which call themselves Christian are collectively called “protestant,” although that word isn’t capitalized, because it is not a specific religion, but can be applied to many.

The situation in England was more of a political quarrel, than a religious one. Henry VIII had two daughters and a son, each by different mothers. Henry separated England’s church from the Roman Catholic Church, more to break the control which the pope was trying to exercise over his government than on any real difference over religion. Henry’s Church was virtually identical to the original church. The king married each of his final five wives in his new protestant church, making his children by those wives illegitimate in the eyes of the Roman Church.

Each of his three children became the ruler of the country. Under the son, as Edward VI, England became more protestant and Catholics were tortured and executed in horrible ways. When Edward died, in his late teens, the older daughter, Mary became Mary I. She ordered the country back into the Catholic faith, and tortured and executed those who were identified with the protestants. When Mary died without children, the second daughter became Elizabeth I, and she dragged the country back out of the Catholic Church, torturing and executing those who didn’t make the switch conveniently enough. For nearly 300 years, it was a crime punishable by death to be a Catholic in England. The exact opposite was true in France, Spain, Portugal, and most of Germany and Austria.

Catholics were afraid to own printed material on their faith, lest they be killed for it, so supposedly they taught their children “The 12 Days of Christmas,” to teach that information. The partridge in the pear tree, for example, was supposed to represent Christ, who famously said he yearned to gather Jerusalem to him, as a hen gathers her chicks, but the people would not allow it.

The two turtle doves were supposed to represent the Old and New Testaments. And, so forth. One note, the four “calling birds” of the song were originally “colley birds.” A colley bird is a crow or a blackboard, which were black as a coal miner or colley would emerge from his work, covered in black dust.

The website’s reasonable explanation for rejecting this explanation is that all the ideas of the song, like the two testaments of the Bible, are present in the king’s protestant faith, as well, and the elements which separated the two churches aren’t represented in any of the verses.

May this blessed season bring to you and to yours all the heavenly peace of these songs, and none of the nonsense.