Singing carols at Christmas is a global practice as we remember the humble birth of the Christ child. These ancient hymns are often accompanied by a pipe organ that would resonate the entire sanctuary with celestial echoes of vibrant harmony. In the 9th and 10th Century it was Bernard of Clarivaux, who implemented a certain style of hymn writing in the European Monasteries, where words were put into rhyming stanzas. Some speculate that carols existed even before that era, in ancient Rome where the first carol was written by Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan in Latin titled Veni redemptor genitum. The word carol originates from the Latin carula which means to dance in a circle, as people used to dance to songs at that time, often in the tradition of the Winter Solstice. This was to honour the shortest day of the year. Years later Fr. Adam of St. Victor began to take music from popular songs and enhance them with sacred words.
Thereafter the singing of carols became popular in France, Germany and in Italy where Francis of Assisi was instrumental in developing carols in the native language. It was only in 1426 that carols in English were first written by Chaplain John Awdlay. These Cristmas songs were sung by wassailers who went singing them house to house, invoking a spirit of brotherhood and cheer. Wassailing is an Anglo Saxon tradition. These carols were also sung at communal events like harvest tide. The tradition really comes from a drink known as Wassail made with mulled ale, roasted apples, ginger and sugar. It was said to be first brewed by a fair Saxon maiden named Rowena.
As church hymns became refined so did the church organ or pipe organ. The first pipe organ was made for the Byzantine emperor Constantine. Later the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne ordered a new organ for his chapel in Aachen in 1812. Decade’s later reformers like Martin Luther also encouraged music in worship amongst the protestant adherents.
Old medieval tunes still sung today are Holly and the Ivy and Good King Wenceslas, a tribute to the pious and heroic lifestyle of Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia.
Many would agree that the most famous carol is one that heralds the birth of the Messiah – ‘Joy to the World’, written by Isaac Watts, who is appreciated as the Father of Hymns with 750 hymns to his credit written from Abney Hall. One cannot forget the lyrics ‘Hark the herald Angels sing’ – composed by Charles Wesley and brought to life by the great German composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1840. ‘O Come all ye Faithful’ first written in Latin as ‘Adeste Fidelis’, by J. Francis Wade is another brilliant yuletide hymn.
Performed for the first time at the Church of St. Nicholas in Austria in 1818, ‘Silent Night’ has an amazing effect on any congregation. It was penned by a priest Fr. Joseph Mohr. It was only in 1871 that this hymn was translated into English for the Methodist Hymnal. Carols follow a Biblical sequence from Gabriel’s Message to the Blessed Mary, Annunciation to the Shepherds and Adoration by the Shepherds, guiding Star of Bethlehem and the Visit of the Magi. The latter is celebrated in some churches as the Feast of the Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas. It was in countries like Poland, Romania and Bulgaria that the trend of caroling took shape as groups went singing house to house and were often rewarded with minced beef pies and jugs of ale!
It is surprising to note that when Oliver Cromwell came to power in 1647 he stopped Christmas celebrations and the singing of carols. Carols were officially instituted in Church worship in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall in 1880 by Bishop Edward Benson. This service was celebrated on 24 December. Some say this Christmas Eve service was designed to keep the men away from the pubs, prior to the 25th December! It is from this order of service that we derive the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. This tradition was upheld at Kings College, Cambridge. Following these footsteps here in Sri Lanka the choristers of S. Thoma’s College, have for decades enriched the Chapel of the Transfiguration with magnificent harmony. Carols have journeyed through centuries and will continue to gently invade the soul with the message of glorious hope and restoration.