Why are Carols Only for Christmas?

Nobody goes Easter caroling or Halloween caroling. We don’t sing carols around the piano bar. Is it just the alliteration that makes carols a Christmas thing? What makes a song a carol, and why do we only sing them at Christmas?

In a world filled with warfare, poverty, and life-or-death health struggles, these are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night, so you can tell my perspective is not warped at all.

But at least I can put this curiosity to work when it’s time to write a blog.

What is a Carol Anyway?

Carols started out as the 12th Century equivalent to a disco anthem. They were dance tunes with words that first became popular around the year 1150. The word probably comes from the Latin term choraula, which refers to musicians, but the French word “carole” refers to a circle dance where everyone would join hands, a leader would sing verses and the rest of the group would join on the refrain, also known as the “burden.”

This explains why none of us know the verses to Christmas carols. It’s not our job. We’re just waiting for the leader to finish so we can contribute to the burden.

Carols Weren’t Originally Religious

We now tend to think of Christmas carols as religious songs, contrasted with other Christmas songs such as “White Christmas.” (Some songs, like “Jingle Bells,” aren’t religious or even Christmasy but they have quaint lyrics so we treat them as Christmas carols.)

Songs like “Away in a Manger,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “The First Noel” definitely refer to the Christ part of Christmas. However, many of the original carols were just popular songs that could be written for any season. People used to sing harvest carols and May carols. Many medieval carols were complex and performed by professionals at banquets and festivals, and they often told a story that had a moral message.

While sources seem to disagree about when the focus of carols became religious, it might make more sense to ask when the secular carols disappeared. The original Christmas hymns, as songs of the church, were sung in Latin, which was a language generally only used by highly-educated people. The religious reformation movements, particularly starting in the 1500s, emphasized spreading the Word of God in common language rather than Latin, and songs are the easiest way to do that.

Christmas Carols vs. Hymns

From a technical perspective, there is a difference between Christmas carols and Christmas hymns. Despite devoting a solid 15 minutes of my life to copious research, I don’t quite understand the distinction. My best guess is that when no one’s sure who wrote the melody, they call it a carol and when they have a definite author of both lyrics and music, historians call it a Christmas hymn. But the distinction is probably far more technical. Some writers have said that hymns are theological while carols focus on factual parts of the Christmas story such as the manger, animals, star, and wise men.

Many popular Christmas hymns and carols date from the 1700s, including “Joy to the World” (hymn), “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (hymn) and “Angels We Have Heard on High” (carol). However, most of the ones we sing these days come from the 1800s including “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (hymn), “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” (hymn), and “We Three Kings” (carol).

Gangs of Roving Carolers

Unlike hymns, which are associated with church, Christmas carols are associated with people singing from door to door. This tradition of going around the village with a bowl of wassail to share and spread cheer dates back as far as the original Christmas carols, although it seems likely that those original carolers were not actually singing true carols (which were professional) but just basic drinking songs. Some sources say that the wassailers brought a giant goblet to share from house to house while other traditions insist that those singing expected to be rewarded with wassail at each stop.

Wassail is a warm drink based on ale, cider, or wine with spices and sometimes a frothed egg. The spices and eggs would have made it an expensive beverage, so it would be saved for special occasions such as the harvest or Christmas.

I’m guessing that that traditions of door-to-door drinking is what made the Puritans ban Christmas carols and everything else associated with the holiday.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Carol

The next time you hear a Christmas song, you can wonder whether it is a carol, a hymn, or something different. The song “Carol of the Bells,” for instance, is a Ukrainian song celebrating the new year. Though we now associate the turning of the year with the Christmas season, the song dates back to the pagan era when the new year was marked in April. And “Jingle Bells?” Don’t even get me started on that one. (I’ve got a whole blog ranting about why we shouldn’t be singing it.)

From today on, you’ll stop hearing Christmas songs until marketers start pushing the season in September or so. But traditionally, the Christmas season lasted another 12 days with the biggest celebrations on Twelfth Night to mark Epiphany. So those of us who live our lights up for a while are not being lazy but liturgical.

You’re welcome. And Merry Christmas!

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Information in this article came from a variety of print and online sources including The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/e/english-carols#:~:text=The%20ordinary%20worshipper%20may%20often,with%20the%20expression%20of%20faith.

“Christmastime in Song” by Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Wilmington, NC 2023.

University of Plymouth https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/discover/the-history-of-christmas-carols#:~:text=The%20word%20carol%20comes%20from,Christmas%20which%20has%20really%20survived.

https://www.classical-music.com/articles/whats-the-difference-between-a-christmas-carol-and-a-hymn

https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/occasions/christmas/why-we-sing-carols/

https://www.slaveryandremembrance.org/almanack/life/christmas/hist_wassail.cfm#:~:text=The%20text%20of%20the%20carol,turned%20was%20hail%2C%20and%20the

If you enjoy stories about dysfunctional families struggling with holiday traditions, you might like my Christmas novellas such as “Change of Address” and “An Excuse for Poor Conduct.”