Christmas is now just two days away, so you think I meant to title this article "Singing the Christmas Carols" didn’t you? But the thing is, you see, that came much later, long after the ancient origins of the music we now know as carols. In fact, only barely in time for our Regency ancestors to begin to enjoy them during their Christmas celebrations.
The carol, from pagan dance to popular Christmas music …
The English word carol has its origins in the French word carole, which dates from the twelfth century and meant a celebratory round or ring-dance accompanied by singing. Men and women held hands and danced around in a circle as they sang. Most of us learned such a ring dance in our youth, when we held hands with our friends on the playground and danced around in a circle singing "Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies, … " Most scholars believe this playground song and dance had its origins in the late eighteenth century, though it would not appear in print for another century. Therefore, as children, many of us have performed the same carol which was also performed by many children during the Regency.
Even before they had a name, carols were popular with our ancient pagan ancestors, particularly when celebrating the changing of the seasons. When one’s very life might depend upon the timely arrival of the next season, one was eager to observe that arrival in a manner which would please whichever deities one believed provided protection and sustained one’s existence. Thus, by the time Christianity came to the British Isles, the local inhabitants had a long tradition of ring dances by which they celebrated the arrival of each new season. These pagan ring-dances were incorporated into the Christian observances of the holy days which fell at the changing of the seasons. Thus, there were carols for Michaelmas, Christmas, Easter and Mid-Summer Day. Over the centuries, more carols were written, but the dance component gradually fell out of favor and a carol became simply a song of celebration.
As the Church became increasingly formal, there was a problem with most of the carols which had their origins in pagan celebrations. Church leaders found many of them entirely too profane, if not downright sacrilegious, and banned them from official Church services. But the carol tradition was so deeply embedded in the popular culture it was impossible for the Church to eradicate it. Soon, the banned music was being sung in secular locations beyond the control of the Church. Dancing was not re-incorporated into carols. They remained only songs of celebration, but were then sung in observance of the Christian holy day which fell nearest to an equinox or solstice. But there was still more change ahead. By the turn of the seventeenth century, carols were seldom sung at the change of any season except the winter solstice, which fell within Christmastide. These Christmas carols continued to be primarily secular in nature, while the songs sung in churches during Christian services came to be known as hymns.
When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans took power in England in the mid-seventeenth century, they quickly moved to abolish any celebration of Christmas. The singing of carols was strictly prohibited in England until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. Perhaps because they had been forbidden them for such a long time, the people of England heartily embraced the singing of carols at Christmas in the reign of King Charles. But those carols remained as irreverent and impious as they had always been, and were still not welcome in the churches. Especially in the country, a tradition which can be dated back to at least the time of Shakespeare was revived. Groups of carolers, usually men of the lower classes, went from house to house, loudly singing Christmas carols. They remained outside each house until they were paid for their efforts. However, these "carolers" were not paid because the inhabitants of the house enjoyed the songs. They were paid to make them go away, as few people appreciated the raucous sounds of bawdy carols sung on their doorsteps at night.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, the content and quality of Christmas carols began to shift. The lyrics gradually became more seemly, even decorous, though for the most part they retained their joyful character. By the end of the eighteenth century, there were many English Christmas carols which had become popular even with the gentry and aristocracy. So much so that some families began to sing carols in their homes as part of their private celebrations of Christmas. By about this same time, a number of carols had been written which were specifically religious and spiritual in nature. These religious-themed carols had gained acceptance by the Church of England and were sung in many churches as part of the Christmas services by the turn of the nineteenth century. The practice of carolers going from house to house singing, particularly in the country, did not die out, but its character also gradually changed. Groups of carolers, often made up of both men and women, went from house to house in their village or town, singing Christmas carols. Most were still given a few coins for their efforts at each house, though this was now less a bribe to make them go away, but rather an act of charity, as many of these carolers were of the working classes. It had also become the practice for homeowners to place a lit candle in their window if they welcomed a stop by the carolers, and most carolers respected these signals, avoiding houses which had no candles in their windows.
By the Regency, it was very common for a group of village carolers to end their evening of caroling at the local manor house. There, they would be invited into the house after singing for the squire’s family and would be treated to refreshments and spiritous libations in front of a warm fire. From the first decade of the nineteenth century, more and more families were also beginning to sing Christmas carols in their family circle as part of their traditions for keeping Christmas. Another tradition which was maintained in some English villages, even in the Regency, was the practice of singing carols from the church towers. In these villages, those who wished to hear the singing of Christmas carols would go to the carolers, rather than the carolers coming to them. During the late eighteenth century, it had been the practice to publish broad-sheets of the most popular Christmas carols, and this practice continued right through the Regency. Christmas celebrations were much more boisterous in England than they were in the countries on the Continent, and over the years, many visitors commented on these celebrations in letters and diaries. In most cases, it was the popular practice of publicly singing Christmas carols which drew the most comments from these foreign visitors.
Many of our Christmas carols today do come to us from the Renaissance or even the Middle Ages. But those carols have been edited from their original versions to make them acceptable to later, more civilized generations. This practice was already underway by the Regency, but it became institutionalized by the reign of Queen Victoria. There were still carols sung in some parts of Regency England which had not yet been sanitized, but they were no longer in the mainstream. By the early nineteenth century, the majority of Christmas carols were fit to be heard in mixed company, but they tended to retain the joyful character of those earlier carols. More and more carols with religious themes where being written, but there were still many carols which harked back to the pagan ceremonies of the original carols, though they were no longer danced, only sung. It was during the Regency that the singing of carols in private homes and in churches was becoming more widespread and became a tradition of the season. Yet again, we see that the Regency was a time of change in which traditions we enjoy today first began to emerge.
A Merry Christmas to all!