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Sunday, 5 January 2014


In medieval times the word “carol” had a purely secular meaning. It originally referred to an open air dance, especially a ring-dance accompanied by singing, which later evolved into a merry song with a tune suggestive of dancing. They were often linked to pagan festivals or harvest time as well as Christmas.

Early Christmas carols included the 11th century "sys willekommen heirre kerst," the oldest surviving German Christmas carol.

A strong contender for the oldest Christmas carol that people still sing regularly today is The French version of "The Friendly Beasts" which goes back to the 12th century. The song was written about the animals surrounding Christ at the nativity.

In the thirteenth century St. Francis of Assisi and his fellow Franciscans understood the appeal of catchy carol tunes especially when compared to their rather more stern religious chants, so they borrowed them writing brand new Christian words to fit popular melodies bringing folk songs into churches along with the people who sang them. Among the Christian tunes they sang were some of the earliest Christmas carols around a nativity scene.

The earliest extant English Christmas carol, "A child is boren amonges man" can be found in a set of sermon notes written by a Franciscan friar in the early fourteenth century.

Prior to the fifteenth century the Church felt that Christmas should be celebrated in a solemn way and discouraged the singing of Christmas carols. However when the Church began to relax its attitude, there was a great increase in the writing of Christmas carols and they began to be sung in church. Most referred to the Virgin Mary, the Christ child, or the saints whose feasts follow Christmas. In Britain the earliest printed edition of a “sett of carols” was published by Wynkyn de Worde in 1521.

Joy to the World was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. The scripture-based words are from Psalm 98, in particular verse 4: "Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music." It was not written as a Christmas song—the original theme was the second coming of Jesus our Lord and King.

The 19th century revival of interest in the Middle Ages and in folk music led to carols being collected and published. A great many pastiche carols were also written in the same Victorian burst of enthusiasm, but they have mainly been discarded by now in favor of the traditional ones.

"Silent Night" was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 at St Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire on the Salzach river in present-day Austria  The words were written by a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, and the melody was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, schoolmaster and organist in the nearby village of Arnsdor.

Disaster hit the church at St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria when the church organ broke down just before the Christmas of 1818. The curate, 26-year-old Josef Mohr, realized it couldn't be repaired in time to provide music on Christmas Eve. He recounted his troubles to his friend, a headmaster and amateur composer named Franz Gruber, while giving him as a present a poem he had written two years earlier. Gruber was so taken by the rhythm of the poem that he set it to music, and on Christmas Eve there was music after all. Mohr played his guitar while the pair sung the song. It was the first public performance of "Stille Nacht" or "Silent Night".

Autograph (c. 1860) of the carol by Franz Gruber

In the mid 1850s the Americans were only beginning to celebrate the Christmas traditions of their English forebearers. The influence of works such as A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens were beginning to enthuse the American nation. "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" was possibly the first Christmas song to be composed in the United States, which today is considered a standard. Within 20 years other classic carols celebrating Christmas such as "We Three Kings of Orient Are," "Jingle Bells" and "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" had been written in the United States.

"Away in a Manger" was first published in an 1885 Lutheran Sunday School book, by James R. Murray (1841-1905) but the author of the first two stanzas and the music's composer is unknown. The third stanza  was added in 1904 by Dr. John McFarland of New York City. Because Murray published it with the subtitle "Luther's Cradle Hymn (Composed by Martin Luther for his children and still sung by German mothers to their little ones)" it created the misconception that the lyrics of Away in a Manger were actually written by Martin Luther himself.

Jonny Mark the writer of well-known Christmas classics such as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree" and "A Holly Jolly Christmas" didn’t celebrate Christmas because he was Jewish.

Source History World, The Big Issue and information previously written for Songfacts

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