Student Voice


August 11, 2022




Christmas carols have varied international roots

December 5, 2013

One thing about the holiday season that is sure to get everyone in the holiday spirit are all of the holiday tunes played on the radio and at places, such as the mall or a Christmas party. There are several well-known Christmas and holiday songs during the holiday season that will surely get everyone singing along.

For as long as anyone can remember, even hundreds or thousands of years ago, Christmas music has always been a staple of the holiday season and an important way of getting people in the holiday spirit.

What is interesting is that Christmas and holiday music did not just suddenly appear one day. There is actually quite an extensive history of this festive music, dating back all the way to the Middle Ages. It has changed quite drastically over time, evolving into the hits that we all know and love today.

The earliest works of the holiday season were in Latin during the Middle Ages. This music included chants, litanies and hymns. At first, all music relating to the holiday season had a religious affiliation and was only meant for use in the church, rather than serving as popular songs.

During the 13th Century, people started to sing carols, influenced by a Saint named Francis of Assisi. The carol gained its name from when the English combined circle dances and singing together.

The meaning changed later, however, to define a carol as a religious topic treated in a style that is familiar or festive to its audience. Carols began to rise in Italy and later spread to other European countries such as France, Germany and England.

Christmas carols translated into English first appeared in 1426 in a work done by John Audelay, a Shropshire priest and poet. He listed off around 25 “carols of Christmas.” These were likely sung by a group of wassailers who went from house to house to sing the various carols.

Because of the developments during just the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Christmas music quickly became one of the greatest tributes to the holiday, and it produced some of the greatest works from several very famous musicians.

However, not everyone around that time was enjoying the music. In England under the government of Oliver Cromwell, the Rump Parliament considered Christmas carols to be Pagan and sinful and prohibited them. Protestant Puritans widely disapproved of Christmas music, as this was considered a custom widely popular with Catholic Christianity. In fact, Cromwell disapproved of many traditions with the holiday prohibited any kind of holiday celebrations.

It was not until May of 1660 when Charles II restored the Stuart family to the throne that Christmas music and customs were allowed once again. This revival of celebration coincided with the King’s own beliefs and traditions. Soon, it became a tradition that carolers would go out into the streets and sing in order to collect money for charity or alms. This became a tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries in the few weeks proceeding Christmas, and it still occurs in the present day.

Original versions of holiday music that we hear today, such as “Deck the Halls” or “Angels we have Heard on High” originated several centuries ago. The oldest carol heard today, “Wexford Carol,” dates all the way back to the 12th century.

English translations had the same idea as the original tune, though not all the same lyrics, especially in the 19th century and the early 20th century. In addition to traditional carols, several secular Christmas tunes began to appear in the mid-19th century. This would include the popular tunes “Jingle Bells,” “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” and “Up on the House Top.” These started to appear more with the turn of the century.

Now that we are right in the middle of the tumultuous holiday season, it is always easy to get in the mood just by simply turning on some Christmas music. Whether you are hurting your ears listening to “The Little Drummer Boy,” some bratty kid who wants a hippopotamus for Christmas or listening to a traditional tune such as “Jingle Bells,” any song is sure to lighten the mood.

It can especially lighten the mood after a long, cold trudge through all of this slush to your warm house, apartment or dorm room. So let some cookies bake, decorate your living space, turn on the music and get some holiday spirit.

Cristin Dempsey is an English major and music minor from Eagan, Minn. She enjoys writing, playing the flute and swimming. After college she would like to pursue a career as an editor.