It’s probably not a surprise to anyone that my favorite Christmas carols are traditional ones. I’m a history buff, and also enjoy classical music. So the old songs appeal to me.
Christmas image with pagan elements
Carols and caroling appears to have roots in pagan rituals. We think of Christmas caroling as a wholesome, and even religious, activity. The songs seem to speak ofthe beauty,innocence, and magic of the Christmas season. However, the beginnings of caroling were not as innocent as we might think. In fact, the act of caroling was actively combatted by the Church for hundreds of years, indicating the songs were wicked and lecherous, accompanied by “dancings and leapings.”
Circumstantial evidence hints that caroling had pagan roots, and was in existence long before the 6th century conversion of the British Isles to Christianity. Pagan caroling was done throughout the year, with the carolers wearing costumes and demanding reward in the form of food. This sounds like Halloween: the carolers expected a reward or threatened a curse (literally trick or treat).
The practice of caroling went through a transformation between the High Middle Ages (12th and 13th centuries) and the Renaissance period. The Church had categorically rejected the practice due to the connection between ‘heathen dancing’ and witchcraft. Eventually though, church leaders adopted an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join‘em” approach. St. Francis of Assisi was one of the major proponents of replacing the old “riotous carols with ones more appropriate” in Italy, which then spread through Europe. Eventually, this led to a “great age of carol writing” between the years 1400 to 1650.
And so, we move into the era that produced some songs that are familiar to us today. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen dates to 1650 or earlier. The Friendly Beasts dates to the 12th century. However, most traditional songs we are familiar with today are less than 200 years old. The First Noël was published in 1823; It Came Upon the Midnight Clear was published in 1849; We Three Kings of Orient Are was published in 1863. These, along with others such as Silent Night and Angels We Have Heard On High, will always be favorites for me.