humorpop culture

The Christmas Carol: Why not Charlotte or Marie?
by Marjorie Dorfman

There are songs and there are carols and never the two shall compare. These sacred melodies associated with the holiday season have their own special history. Read on to learn more, even if you can’t carry a tune.

When most people think of Christmas carols, visions of Ebenezer Scrooge and Victorian children huddled in the falling snow outside lighted cathedral windows come to mind. Along with sugarplums and the spectacular dazzle of lights and colors, carols are also deeply rooted in the traditions of the Christmas season.

Christmas music as we know it probably began in the Middle Ages, although its real origins date as far back as the 7th century and the sacred music of the Gregorian chants. Traditionally St. Francis of Assisi is associated as a singer of some of the first carols in 1223. (The birds and other animals so long linked with him might even have sung along.) These melodies were sung to lively music, which contained a series of verses punctuated by a refrain, and a round of dancing. In the 14th century, the custom of singing and dancing soon spread throughout Italy, Spain, France, England and Germany with the help of wandering minstrels and troubadours who had to dance and sing and had nowhere else to go.

Carols were originally intended as preaching aids and were not limited to Christmas time, a practice that developed as centuries passed. New Years, Easter, planting and harvesting times all generated their own particular songs of celebration. Some were generic and could be sung year round, and it was only at the end of the 19th century that carol singing became exclusively associated with Christmas. Busking (street singing) appears to have been clearly established in the Middle Ages, but it was the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century that spurred growth and popularity. The establishment of the Lutheran Church in Germany did much to promote congregational singing. Up until that time, the priests or other clerics sang most hymns. It is said that Martin Luther himself went caroling with family and friends, singing in four-part harmony, while he accompanied them on his lute. (Whether he sang and played at the same time or in one, two, three or even four parts is unknown.)

The printing press was a recent invention at this time (1455) and books of carols were virtually unknown. Most survived through oral tradition, if at all. An English printer named Wynkyn de Word produced the first known book of Christmas carols, Christmasse Carolles, in 1521. Unfortunately, only two pages survived. Between the years 1500-1536, Richard Hill, an English grocer with a poor memory, decided to record all the things he didn’t want to forget. Among them were a number of Christmas carols. His book was discovered behind a bookcase in 1850 and is now in library of Balliol College, Oxford. (It would seem that he forgot where he put the book after he remembered to write it!)

In 1562, Thomas Tyndale received a license from the Lord Mayor of London to print "certain goodly carols to be sung to the glory of God". These were widely distributed in England through "broadsides" or "garlands," which were actually little leaflets containing three or more carols sold for about a penny.

If the 15th century marked the first Golden Age of the Carols, the 19th century was clearly the second. Occasionally their creation was an unusual amalgam of melodies (at least in the eyes of the contemporaries). The carol, What Child Is This? is based on the anonymous Tudor tune, Greensleeves, which is thought to have originally been a love song written for a prostitute. (They wore green sleeves in medieval England.) Its haunting lyrics were filled with everything but holiday and saintly imagery and even Shakespeare mentioned the song in his play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. In 1865, an Englishman named William Dix, wrote The Manger Throne, of which three verses evolved into What Child is This using the Greensleeves melody.

Some famous carols were written from the mid to the late 19th century. These include O Come All Ye Faithful and Good King Wencelas. Many Victorian lyrics were written to traditional tunes from earlier centuries. During the latter part of the century the church carol service came to be established in the form we know today. Some carols come from abroad, such as Little Town of Bethlehem, We Three Kings of Orient Are and the most popular of all, Silent Night.

Silent Night has its own particular story. The original 1818 manuscript is missing and so the earliest version of the song is from a second one from about 1820. As the story goes, Pastor John Mohr of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Germany, needed a carol for his Christmas Eve service. He had written a poem, which he was sure could be set to music with the help of Franz Gruber, a schoolteacher who also served as the church’s organist and choirmaster. It was he who composed the haunting melody, which he wrote to be accompanied by guitar, at the request of the pastor. Stille Nacht was introduced to the world that very night

And so, my friends, carols may be songs, but songs are not necessarily Carols. Whatever you do, don’t tell Charlotte or Marie. After all, we wouldn’t want to hurt their feelings at such a special time of year.

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Copyright 2004