What is a ‘carol’ anyway?

What is a ‘carol’ anyway? December 24, 2003

EDITOR’S NOTE: Second of two columns on traditional carols.

The story begins with the Empress Helena, who commanded that the relics of the Wise Men of the East be brought to Byzantium.

These three skulls were eventually taken to Milan and, in 1162, to Cologne. According to folk tradition, the relics made their journey from Bethlehem to Cologne in three ships. As minstrels kept singing the songs, the destination changed and so did the identity of the travelers.

The result was a carol: “I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day on Christmas day. I saw three ships come sailing in, on Christmas Day in the morning.” It asked, “And what was in those ships all three?” The answer was the Holy Family, or “Our Savior Christ and his lady.” The carol asked, “And where they sailed those ships all three?” The obvious answer: “All they sailed in to Bethlehem.”

The logic may escape singers today. But it worked for centuries of carolers in the pageants, processions and parties during Christmas and the 12-day season that followed.

“The true Christmas carol is anonymous, both the text and the tune. A true carol is something like ‘I Saw Three Ships’ or ‘The First Noel.’ Many of them are very, very old,” said scholar Hugh T. McElrath, author of “The History of Our Christian Faith In Hymns.”

“Hymns tend to be more formal and church-centered and from a particular composer in a particular place and time. Carols just spring up among the people and it’s common to find many different versions handed down from generation to generation.”

The question now is whether centuries of carols can survive modern trends, from the secularization of public holiday music to the contemporary church’s hunger for music that constantly changes to mirror pop sales charts.

Christmas carols can be traced to St. Francis of Assisi and his Nativity dramas in 1223. Carols were sung as “intermezzi” between scenes of the “mystery plays” for centuries. The carols became so popular that theater players and members of the audience began processing into the streets, singing and dancing.

After all, noted Erik Routley in his classic book “The English Carol,” early definitions of “carol,” “carole” or “karolle” define this music as a round dance. “Even if we say that to all general purposes today a carol is a cheerful seasonal song … we shall never understand its extraordinary history if we forget that it began not as a pious religious gesture but as a dance,” he wrote.

When it came time for Christmas festivals, few drew a stark line between sacred and secular. Thus, the home of the true Christmas carol was not in the safety of a church sanctuary, surrounded by marble and pure candlelight. Carols were sung on sidewalks and in the marketplace, in homes and in taverns.

“The dance could be trivial, but the church would spiritualize it,” noted Routley. “Feasting could be orgiastic, but the church would balance it with fasting. Joy could be selfish and frantic, but the church would make it sane.”

This happened in many cultures, from the festive Christmas carols of Latin America to the rousing Russian “kolyadki,” which were shared by carolers who gladly accepted food, drink and coins as they moved from house to house. North American folk music has already yielded classic carols such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Away in a Manger.”

And what about today?

As long as people gather to celebrate Christmas together, they will produce new carols and pass along classics to future generations, said Kenneth W. Osbeck, author of “101 Hymn Stories” and many similar books. There have been hard times for carolers in the past, such as the Puritan era when such public revelry was banned.

If the Christmas season is celebrated with joy, then the carols will survive.

“I can’t think of a single carol that has a note of sadness and tragedy to it,” said Osbeck. “Maybe there are a few, I don’t know. But what unites these simple songs — from culture to culture and in all settings and times — is that simple sense of joy in celebrating Christmas and the birth of Jesus Christ.

“If people want to share that joy with others, then that’s what the carols are for.”

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