Have we got Christmas carols all wrong?

Thu 14 Dec 2023 by Donna Birrell

An English Heritage historian is challenging what we think we know about Christmas carols.

Dr Michael Carter says many carols actually started out with very different tunes or no tune at all. Revellers were said to have made up the tune as they went along and carols were written to be danced to. Many of the earliest carols were written by medieval monks and were ring dances where everybody linked hands in a circle and sang the song whilst dancing.

While most surviving medieval carols had no fixed tune at all, they’ve either been lost to history or revellers made them up as they went along. Others such as the classic While Shepherds Watched were sung to a different tune entirely. They have evolved over time, with the harmony of Hark the Herald Angels only added in the 1960s, despite the tune being composed by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840.

Dr Carter also says carols were not originally sung in churches – instead being performed from door to door or in places such as alehouses.

Writing on the English Heritage website, the Senior Properties Historian, said: “As a big fan of Christmas who enjoys nothing more than belting out a carol, I feel a little churlish pointing out that Christmas carols having fixed melodies is a modern innovation. In actual fact only a fraction of medieval Christmas carols retain their original score, and it’s entirely possible that in many instances these were never composed at all! Instead, many tunes were simply made up on the spot. In perhaps happier news, we might also think of carols today as solemn and reflective, but the first carols were actually written to be danced to and would have been a rather jolly affair. While this is a practice I personally hope we revive, it’s worth remembering that carols are a living tradition, evolving through the centuries, and should be celebrated in all forms, especially at Christmas.”

Dr Carter said that although often religious in content, carols were not fully integrated into church services until the late Victorian era. He added that carols would only have been sung during the 12 days of Christmas – from Christmas Eve until Epiphany on 6 January – and not in the weeks before Christmas as we do today.

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