Dating back to as early as the 13th Century, Christmas carols have become an integral part of our annual holiday celebrations. Be it in a church, door-to-door, or just a knees-up and a sing-song in the local pub, the joyous sound of carols is one that is synonymous with winter festivities.
Here author Reverend Mark Lawson-Jones recounts the history of Christmas carols, finding them to be embedded with not only Christian significance, but also pagan imagery and political worth. He uncovers the roots and connotations of many favorite carols, reveals their surprising histories and interesting meanings.
Of course, most people traditionally associate carols with the Christian faith. And although there may be other meanings, it is the religious significance that is most prominent. An obvious example is ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ - a song designed to teach children the story of the birth of Jesus. Its straight-talking lyrics and simple melody perfectly retells the traditional, Christian story of Christmas. There are also religious messages within carols that do not necessarily allude to the birth of Jesus. For example, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ seems to also symbolize Jesus’ suffering as the redness of the berries reflect his blood and the sharpness of the holly imitates his crown of thorns. However, there is one carol that buries its religious significance deep below the surface: ‘The 12 days of Christmas’. At first glance, this carol seems like nothing more than a historic remnant of a parlor game, used to entertain children and test memory. However, the song may actually be secretly coded to teach people about faith, with each different subject upholding religious connotations. The ‘six geese a-laying’ symbolizes the six days of creation, the ‘eleven pipers piping’ relates the eleven apostles and the ‘partridge in a pear tree’ is Jesus himself.
There are historical influences and meanings to our beloved carols. For example, the lyrics of ‘Hark the Herald Angel Sing’ may have stemmed from religious beliefs, but the upbeat, familiar tune we know today has a different origin. In fact, the tune was composed in the mid-nineteenth century by Felix Mendelssohn as a cantata to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press! Additionally, ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ (which we’ve only just established as being extremely religious) could also represent the battle of the sexes. With holly having masculine qualities, and ivy feminine, the imagery could have been part of an older tribal tale that developed into a dance for young men and women.
One of the most inspiring caroling stories, however, does not come from roots or meaning, but from the First World War. 1914 marked the first Christmas during the war, and one that went down in history as both German and English soldiers stopped fighting to exchange festive memories and play football with each other. It was through the power of carols that this happened. The British were told to watch the Germans closely as they were putting up candles and lights in their trenches, and it wasn’t until the Germans sang their first carol that the British let down their guard. In retaliation the British sang ‘The first Noel’, which was consequently followed by a string of carols to-ing and fro-ing between the front lines. Then the British started to sing one of the oldest carols in existence – ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’. To their surprise the Germans joined in by singing the same tune to the Latin words ‘Adeste Fideles’. It was after this extraordinary moment that both armies ignored their horrendous surroundings and hatred for one another and wished each other a Merry Christmas.