Origins of Carols

We all hear the same carols time and time again at Christmas. Some we love; some we don’t feel inspired by. But there are so many other carols which have been sung in Gloucestershire over the years.

The first medieval Christmas songs were closely tied to the Church liturgy and sung around the time of the major festivals. But it was in the fifteenth century that ‘carols’ , originally used to describe a form of dance, came into their own with the development of verse forms which could be used to carry the melody. The Piae Cantiones of 1582 was a source for carols, probably ancient at that time, including the original versions of In Dulci Jubilo and Unto Us a Boy is Born. Carols would have been used for Church Festivals all the year round and only later became principally associated with Christmas. They would have been used in Mystery Plays, which were carried out in the street to bring to life the story of the Bible, for example, the Coventry Carol was used in the Coventry Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors.

The rise of Puritanism suppressed the singing of many of the old carols and it was not until the publication of While Shepherds Watched in 1700, as a Christmas hymn, that they came back into favour with the establishment. However carols had been preserved as they continued to be sung as folk songs in secular society and published in broadsheets which were sold in the street. These would have been passed orally from one singer to another and this resulted in regional variations of melody and words. In the 18th and early 19th century music was also being provided in rural churches to enliven the chanting of psalms by West Gallery Quires who had a rich Christmas repertoire.

With the publication in Victorian times of more carols, interest in carols was revived, matching the Victorian interest in a greater celebration of Christmas in general. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries folk song collectors such as Cecil Sharp discovered that local carols were still being sung, especially in the West Country and Yorkshire, and began the interest in local carols which continues to this day. We now know of many fascinating local carols, not least from Gloucestershire, with multiple origins which stand up well against better well-known and more recently composed carols.

Note by Carol Davies November 2011