The word ‘carol’ comes from French and Anglo-Norman and originally referred to a ‘round dance with singing’. This soon expanded to refer to groups of people dancing in a circle and singing happily together; and with the ‘circle’ often moving through a town or public space. From this origin it’s easy to see that a large part of the carol’s appeal – right to the present day – is that it brings people together.
The popular Christmas carol Silent Night is so well known and loved that it seems like it must have been around for a very long time. In fact the lyrics were written as recently as 1816 by Joseph Mohr, and the melody composed two years later by fellow-Austrian Franz Xavier Gruber. But the history of Christmas carols in general is certainly much older. In the 10th-12th century, European monks began to give a particular form to earlier, rather sombre, Christian hymns, by introducing the idea of a succession of verses, each with different lyrics but matching syllabic counts, interspersed with a recurring chorus or refrain. The form was catchy and its use was not restricted to Christmas time but lent itself to songs for any number of feast days (that is, ‘holidays’ from the words ‘holy days’). In England, the first reference to the “caroles of Cristemas” seems to be in the work of the chaplain, John Awdlay, in 1426.
Another carol that many think is a medieval composition is Good King Wencelas but, in fact, it was composed as (relatively) recently as 1853 by John Mason Neale. Its ‘medieval flavour’ however comes about, I suggest, for two reasons:
- Its words are inspired by the medieval legend of the life of St Wencelas (907-935), a Bohemian nobleman who braved freezing winter conditions to deliver alms to the poor
- Its melody is taken from a 13th century seasonal (spring) carol
Similarly, The Twelve Days of Christmas, with its strange list of ‘gifts’, evokes the medieval world. Again, this carol is more recent, its words having been first published in England in 1780; but the idea of such a list can be found in the provincial songs of many earlier compositions. Additionally, “a partridge in a pear tree” does have very close links with the allegorical/moral entries in medieval bestiaries. (I’ve written about bestiaries in another post but, for those who don’t know, the medieval bestiary is a type of compendium of beasts and animals, real and mythical, accompanied by a symbolic interpretation and a moral lesson, particular to each beast). There, the partridge is described as a deceitful bird because of its practice of stealing the eggs from the nest of other birds, and of then hatching them. This was never to the partridge’s advantage, however, as, once hatched, the baby birds would recognise the call of their true mother and would fly to her. The associated allegorical meaning was that the partridge stood for the Devil and his stealing of souls (into sin) but, eventually, when the sinners recognised God as their true creator, they would repent, leaving the Devil empty-handed.
Not that any of these weightier meanings dampened the enthusiasm for enjoyment of our medieval forebears at Christmas. They continued to ‘wassail’ happily. And that’s as it should be, as ‘wassail’ comes from the Middle English wæs hæll meaning ‘be in [good] health.
Good health and happy wassailing and carol singing to you all!