Christmas Classics: Carols

In my student days I spent several Christmases working in retail. Musically, it took me years to recover from spending ten hours a day listening to piped Christmas ‘muzak’, which tends to feature a lot of snow and very little religious sentiment, often while muttering darkly about how I live in a country where Christmas occurs in the middle of summer and ‘if it does f***ing snow I am NOT going to be impressed.’

Christmas carols, however, are another thing altogether for me, and it seems I’m not alone. Even in secularised New Zealand community-organised open-air carol singing events can still draw a crowd. Santa usually puts in an appearance, and there’s an atmosphere of good-natured celebration, if not exactly religious devotion, which is arguably fitting to the singing of carols.

Wanganui carols 2015
Carol singers gathered at this year’s Carols By Candlelight. Image (c) Wanganui Chronicle.

Because the tradition of carol singing didn’t originate in churches and monasteries amongst those who had given their lives over to religious devotion. The word ‘carol’ has its roots in a term meaning ‘ring-dance’, and early carols were intended as dance music for and by the common people and evolved along with the popular medieval ‘mystery plays’ which were once performed throughout England to mark the high holy days of Christmas and Easter.

As Percy Dearmar wrote in the preface to the Oxford Book of Carols:

Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular and modern. They are generally spontaneous and direct in expression and their simplicity of form causes them sometimes to ramble on like a ballad. Carol literature and music are rich in true folk poetry and remain fresh and buoyant even when the subject is a grave one.
– Preface to The Oxford Book Of Carols, 1928

The Oxford Book Of Carols was one of the first collections of carols made widely available to churches throughout Britain, and has been hugely influential on British carol singing. It includes a vast selection of traditional British carols, often identified by their place of origin such as the Gloucestershire Wassail, the Somerset Carol, and the haunting Coventry Carol, which laments Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. It was followed in 1950 by W. L. Reed’s Treasury of Christmas Music, which included a number of European carols (or their tunes at least) and in which is found such popular pieces as Away in a Manger, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Silent Night.

In short, carols are the soundtrack of Christmas and while I dislike hearing them played before the start of Advent, once the countdown to Christmas begins I’ll shamelessly pop them on and belt them out at every opportunity.

I am deeply indebted to Radio New Zealand’s Composer of the Week series for the information contained in this post. To hear more about British Christmas Carols, you can listen to their programme from December 2012 at

Do you have a favourite Christmas carol? Let me know in the comments section.

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