Festival of Carols Program Notes

Program Notes by Rick Phillips for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Festival of Carols concert

Turkey and cranberry sauce, mistletoe, eggnog, yule logs – of all the elements and traditions that make up the spirit of Christmas, the singing of carols is maybe the most essential. The appeal seems universal and interminable, uniting children and adults in song. Even those too shy or embarrassed to sing, will usually join in a carol at Christmas. And it’s surprising how the simple story of the birth of the baby Jesus in a manger has inspired such a huge variety of carols. But the evolution of the carol goes back centuries and it was not always viewed favourably.

It’s believed that the origin of the word “carol” may date back to the ancient Greek choros, a circular dance with singing. Carols were often used in pagan rituals to mark the end of one season and the arrival of the next. As Christianity developed, these pagan links prevented carols from being accepted, and they were eventually banned outright. The cross and the crucifixion, signifying death and judgment, had long been the main objects of Christian faith, but gradually as the focus changed to the personality and humanity of Jesus, the cradle and the nativity gained more importance. In 13th century Italy, Francis of Assisi further developed the celebration of Christ’s birth with Nativity plays, where songs and carols describing the Bethlehem events were sung in the vernacular instead of Latin. Now that the common folk could understand, they began to join in and the carol style quickly spread to France, Spain and Germany. One of the best-known, In dulci jubilo from 14th century Germany, originally mingled Latin with German phrases.

It was the Franciscans who probably gave the Christmas carol to the British Isles, where it flourished between 1400 and 1550. Some of them, still sung today would include A Virgin Most Pure, Adam Lay y Bounden and The Coventry Carol. The Boar’s Head Carol is one that breaks from the nativity story to focus on the pleasures of Christmas, with festive eating and drinking. By the late Middle Ages, the Church had recognized the appeal of the carol to worshippers, over the dry, monotonous monody of Gregorian chant. With the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, in Germany the carol entered a new phase as part of Martin Luther’s focus on congregational singing. But in England and Scotland, carol singing was seen in its original pagan guise, sometimes linked with witchcraft. Oliver Cromwell tried his best to outlaw the practice, forcing carols to be sung secretly, and although the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 ended the prohibition of Christmas carols, the stigma of paganism remained. Only by the late 17th century did carols like While Shepherds Watched and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing begin to show up on the “approved” list of the Church of England. The first Canadian Christmas carol, the Huron Carol or Jesu Ahatonhia, dates from the middle of the 17th century, originally sung in the native Huron language and attributed to the Jesuit missionary and martyr, Jean de Brébeuf.

Through the 18th century, the carol continued to be frowned upon in church, and was mostly heard in homes or outdoors, in the streets. This was the heyday of wassailing, the tradition of going door-to-door singing and drinking to the health of all. Worried that the pre-Reformation carol would die out, they were collected, edited and published by musicians and folk-song collectors. In the 19th century, the Victorians reinvented Christmas as a sentimental festival of good cheer with families and friends, and the carol enjoyed a renaissance. Many new carols, in a pseudo-traditional style were written, and the concept of a white Christmas with snow was introduced into carols like In the bleak mid-winter and See, amid the winter snow. The Victorian spirit of Christmas wafted across the Atlantic and strongly influenced the U.S., resulting in popular carols like Away in a Manger and It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. By the end of the 19th century, small English parish churches began the Christmas Eve practice of lessons, prayers and a short sermon mingled with a variety of carols, that was later expanded to a festival of nine lessons and carols, made popular around the world in the 20th century by King’s College, Cambridge.

Although it’s the traditional carols that tend to tug on the heart strings, the arranging and composition of Christmas carols is an ongoing, living tradition. Carol composition competitions produce new carols that often reflect current values and trends, from non-denominational and multi-faith carols, to ones with lively rhythms emanating from the Caribbean or Brazil. Percy Dearmer, who compiled The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928 with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw maybe defined the term best.

“The typical carol gives voice to the common emotions of healthy people in language that can be understood and music that can be shared by all.”

Merry Christmas!


Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher, host and music tour guide. These notes were originally published in the December 2011 Festival of Carols program.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: marketing@tmchoir.org. Thank you.

Categories: 2011-2012 Season, 2012-2013 Season, 2013-2014 Season, and Program Notes.