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A dive into the surprising history of the Christmas carol

Michael Rielly

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A dive into the surprising history of the Christmas carol

Classic FM
December 3, 2020
By Rosie Pentreath



In 1928, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge’s Christmas Eve carol service was broadcast over the public airwaves for the very first time.

The same year saw The Oxford Book of Carols – edited by Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw –published, aiding the wide enjoyment of festive hymns throughout the population.

But what are the origins of the Christmas carol? What actually is it to “sound Christmassy”? And why don’t we just sing Christmas carols all year round?

It’s not as obvious as you might think, so do indulge our festive feelings, and join us on a journey through the history of the Christmas carol.

What was the first Christmas carol?

It’s generally accepted that one of the first Christmas carols ever to be recorded was the 129 AD ‘Angels Hymn’, according to The New Daily. Around this time, Christianity-themed hymns started taking over the previous pagan songs celebrating Winter Solstice.

More and more slow, solemn hymns started to emerge in the fourth century, and by the 12th, songs referring to Nativity themes and creatures had emerged.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, one of the oldest printed carols is the ‘Boar’s Head Carol’, which dates from 1521. Apparently, it was traditionally heard annually at Queen’s College, Oxford as Christmas lunch was carried in.


What makes Christmas music so Christmassy?

There are several elements that go into something seeming to sound unquestionably Christmassy.

Stirring melodies are usually sprinkled with minor and diminished chords – think of the mix of major and minor melody lines in ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ – in popular Christmas carols and songs.

This all underpins lyrics that are nostalgic, and often as sombre as they are uplifting and inspiring. Centred around the miraculous story of Jesus’s birth, of course, the overall message of the Christmas carl is one of awe, humility, hope and abundant joy.

In more modern Christmas music, you can rely on a stick of ‘sleigh bells’ or similar to guarantee a Christmas auditory association.


Today, lots of new choral Christmas music is often commissioned by leading choirs like The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and lots of leading living composers, including Arvo Pärt, Eric Whitacre and Bob Chilcott, have written beautiful contemporary carols.

Full Article: https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/occasions/christmas/carol-history-origins/

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Great reading Michael. Thanks! I would like to comment about making music sound more, "Christmassy". Our modern ears are very accepting of "Jazz Chords",  or "extended chords", that combine to make majestic Christmas melodies sound more Christmassy. Chords that make music sound Christmassy could be annoying in other styles of music. For example, in addition to the minor, and diminished chords mentioned in the article, contemporary musicians incorporate Major 7th, minor 7th, Major 6th, minor 6th, suspended 4th, lowered 5th, raised 5th, 9th, 11th, 13th, etc. chords, to envision soaring angelic choruses being sung by individuals, or by a multitude of Heavenly Host. Simple Folk Carols, Christmas Hymns, and Contemporary Carols alike, are enhanced by thinking outside the realm of 3 note chords, making Christmas Music unique. As unique and Heavenly as it's Subject.

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There is so much in the History of Christmas and the Culture that has developed since Christ's birth

The carol was originally a seasonal dance song usually in tempus perfectum (compound or 3 metre.) We still have many Easter, Epiphany, Advent, Ascension, and other Liturgical Seasons, but we now use the term Carol to describe both secular and sacred Christmas Music.  

There is a wealth of great music that celebrates both the Sacred Observance and the Secular Festival. As a Choral Conductor, there are so many works I look forward to performing, but Christmas Music holds a special place in my heart and I always look forward to the Christmas Concerts each year. I still remember one of my mentors in grad school sharing with us how from all the concerts he would conduct each year the Christmas Concerts were his favourite. By the way, he was the person who encouraged me to develop my North Pole and gave me my start in Holiday Pops Concerts as Santa.

It's very fascinating to read the background on many of the most popular Christmas pieces and how their composition was a true act of love. That could be an entire series of articles.

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