Although Christmas Carolling may be a dwindling practice, its history is rich and plenty. Today it is less common to hear carollers singing outside your door between the 21st December and Christmas morning. However it is guaranteed that you will hear all the favourites – ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ and ‘Oh Holy Night’ – erupting from the doors of your local church during carol service. Christmas carols remain one of the lasting religious features of the modern day Christmas, even if heard through speakers rather than a group of festive singers outside your door.
The first carols that we know of appeared in fourth century Rome. Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan wrote the Latin hymn ‘Veni Redemptop Gentium’ as a solemn statement about the Incarnation. The evolution of carols from sombre theological lessons into medieval liturgical songs happened naturally as worship became centred around church and community. However even strongly religious medieval carolling was not austere enough for Oliver Cromwell. Carolling became an underground practice when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans had power over England in the 17th century. Cromwell believed Christmas should be a sombre time, rather than a celebration and banned carolling. Following Cromwell, carols were looked to as a way of expressing Christmas cheer, and the custom of carol services and street singing became established.
Written Christmas carols first appeared in English in the 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire Chaplain who documented twenty five ‘Caroles of Cristemas’, a collection which would most likely have been sung by groups of wassailers (carol singers) travelling from house to house. The classics we know today were initially songs sung by communities around Christmas and other celebratory times, such as harvest tide. Wassailers would sing to their neighbours and friends, wishing them good fortune, and hoping for good tidings and gifts in return, hence ‘please bring us some figgy pudding’. The Reformation saw carols increase in popularity. Luther himself created carols, and the practice of singing as a form of worship was warmly welcomed and encouraged. To this day carolling is a religious Christmas institution that is dwindling. The secularization of many Christmas tunes we enjoy today may mean that the religious content of carols will decrease, however, as History shows, the joy of Christmas carolling is withstanding.