I come from a musical family. We were all singers, and wherever we traveled, we sang traditional songs and, in Christmas season, carols. My father and I improvised harmonies. Advent Sundays were a foursome, sometimes with guests, singing along to my father’s guitar strumming. And, of course, as a semi-pro soloist, I sang on stages and on church galleries galore. It never occurred a bit to me to research caroling history – until now.
The very first church hymns were some austere affairs, and to today’s habits of musical consumption these 4th century pieces are nowhere near the upbeat, groovy melodies that we are listening to in stores and singing in modern church music. Rhymed stanzas came only around the 10th century; and the 12th century revolutionized church music by introducing popular music into church hymns. I guess, some people must have been shocked! Indeed, I remember hearing that Bach’s “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” used to be a dance only a few centuries earlier; slowed down and harmonized differently, with a serious text in addition, it has become one of the best-known passion tide hymns.
Apparently, France, Germany, and Italy were on the forefront when it came to the tradition of Christmas carols, which started to develop strongly in the 13th century. England hopped on the band wagon a century later – the delay might have been caused by the separating Channel. Who knows? And with the Lutheran reformation – Luther being one for church music big time – Christmas carols and hymns gained even stronger impact.
What I didn’t know, was that there had been caroling long before – in the pagan times. Caroling was a combination of song and dance – all around the year, by the way. The Roman Catholic church simply embraced this tradition to gather and convert non-believers in its folds. And as Latin became less and less understood outside the church, and the music had mostly been restricted to the use by the clergy, the introduction of national or regional language and popular music was a necessity to keep church (and Christmas) popular!
In Britain, Christmas caroling came to a grating halt under the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell, though. And no, I didn’t know this either until I read an internet article titled “The History of Christmas Carols” by Les Hewitt. Even the celebration of Christmas was banned. Why? I guess because the British were a bit over the top, celebrating twelve days of Christmas with debauchery, dance, plays, wassailing, masquerades, in short anything secular that comes to one’s mind. So, officially, the festivities were knocked of the calendar. Also, some of the carols were deemed to have Catholic secret messages – and Catholic belief was also banned. But thanks to an ever-growing underground movement, the tradition of caroling was secretly kept up all across the board, and thus we still have all these beautiful old carols along with what has been created ever since, from “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” to “Adeste Fideles”, “What Child is this”, and “Silver Bells”.
Ever since I have come to the United States, caroling has been something I have been relying on outside home. Though my husband is very musical, we somehow rarely perform music together. So, I was more than happy to sing carols, hymns, and arias in Christmas services at what back then was called Oberlin Church (no, not the one in my novels, the real one in Steilacoom). Also, it became a marvelous tradition to perform with incredibly versatile pianist Jan Lucas (indeed, Steilacoom’s Mayor Ron Lucas’ wife) at Christmas at the Orr Home. And not to forget The Wagon Shop Warblers at the Steilacoom Historical Museum’s own annual Magical Night at the Wagon Shop, an impromptu choir that sings popular carols without any previous rehearsals.
This year, alas, no singing, no caroling, no performances. None? My CDs are on every day, and I post Christmas music on my Facebook pages on a daily basis, like an advent calendar. And I sing. Of course, I do! These carols need to be aired before they are put away into the closet for another year. The glorious old ones, and the groovy new ones. Do you sing? Or hum? Now you know you’re not alone in this, as somebody else does it, too.