Those time-honored traditional carols? Not so ancient after all

Posted on: December 20, 2011

In Saturday’s (12/17) Telegraph (London), Michael White looks at the surprisingly brief history of Christmas carols: “Christmas connects us with our pasts, with all the other Christmases we’ve known. More than that, it connects us with the collective past: with all our squabbling forebears who … gathered peaceably in Cotswold churchyards, medieval cloisters or the trenches of the Somme, and sung these tunes. Throughout the centuries, or so it’s nice to think. Needless to say, the truth is different. Christmas is, of course, a largely 19th-century invention: so are all those carols. Most of them aren’t hugely ancient. Most of them aren’t even carols, if you’re strict on definition. And the ones that are tend not to have particularly spiritual origins, mixing the sacred with the secular … Historically, a carol was a dance-tune, sung to simple, repetitive texts and a robust affair—as much to do with drinking and fertility rites as with the birth of Jesus. It wasn’t welcomed in church where, up to the Reformation at least, Christmas music was still steeped in the contemplative calm of plainsong. And when the Reformation kicked in, it came with a distrust of Christmas that prepared the ground for Cromwell’s abolition of it from 1644 to 1660. So no carol singing then. … the  first classic collection of Christmas music in print was the 1928 Oxford Book of Carols: presiding genius, Vaughan Williams.”

Posted December 20, 2011