Keep on Singing Those Christmas Carols During the Christmas Season.
Most of know by heart at least a few Christmas carols, and have heard many others, both secular and religious. Since Thanksgiving we have heard them in stores, on the radio, at Christmas concerts, and we sang them at Mass on Christmas. Yet, once the secular world has put away the Christmas decorations Catholics continue singing the carols and hymns of Christmas for several more days. Why? For us the Christmas Season continues through January 9th – the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Hymns written specifically for Christmas have been around, it seems, as long as the feast itself. Many of these early hymns were created and added to the Divine Office (known today as the Liturgy of the Hours) and weren’t widely known.
Carols, which are more joyful songs associated with dance – since the word “carol” comes from either the Old French term for circle dance, carole, derived from the Latin choraula, or the Greek dance choraulein, – seem to have been first introduced in the 12th century by Saint Francis of Assisi, who is also credited with creating the first Nativity scene. He wanted to teach people about the birth of Jesus through music, so he added religious lyrics to well-known tunes. The concept of Christmas carols then traveled throughout Europe, including to Germany where many carols were written in the 14th century. Carols today often retain the medieval choral patterns from the tradition of these early carols. As time went on, the popularity of Christmas carols and hymns grew, and from this we have some of the most popular Christmas songs today.
Probably one of the more well-known Christmas hymns today is “Silent Night,” which was written in 1818 in Austria. As the story goes, on Christmas Eve Father Joseph Mohr, the Pastor of Saint Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, ran into a problem when the church organ broke. There would not be time to get it repaired before Christmas Mass, and faced the prospect of Christmas Masses with no organ music, Father Mohr took a poem he had written two years before and asked the church organist, Franz Gruber, to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment to go with the poem. Thus “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht”) was born and first sung that night at the parish midnight Mass.
The hymn “O Come All Ye Faithful” (also well-known by its Latin name, “Adeste Fideles”), was composed by John Francis Wade in 1743. The lyrics may have been written as early as the 13th century, but it seems more likely that they were also written by John Francis Wade.
“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” comes from England and was written in the 15th century. It was one of the most popular carols for centuries, finally published around 1833.
“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” was written by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, who was an early leader of Methodism. It was altered many times until the version we know today became the most popular. It was sung with a variety of tunes at first, but eventually the majority settled on a tune by Felix Mendelssohn written in 1840.
Before the invention of the printing press, carols were a way to communicate the Christmas story and pass it from one generation to another. An example of this is “The Twelve Day of Christmas,” which was written for English Catholics to illustrate the truths of their faith during a time of persecution. One partridge in a pear tree – God’s gift of love to mankind: the advent of Jesus and His death on the cross. Two turtle doves – the Old and the New Testaments. Three French horns – the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity, or the Holy Trinity. Four calling birds – the four Gospels. Five gold rings – the first five books of the Old Testament telling the story of man’s fall from grace. Six geese a laying – the six days of creation. Seven swans a-swimming – the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Eight maids a-milking – the eight Beatitudes. Nine ladies dancing – the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. Ten lords a-leaping – the Ten Commandments. Eleven pipers piping – the eleven faithful disciples. Twelve drummers drumming – the twelve points of belief in the Apostles’ Creed.
These hymns and carols are entrenched into our associations with Christmas – and there are also a many that are not nearly as well known or mainstream, but are beautiful, reverent, and joyful. For most of us, the Christmas Season would probably be empty without the sounds of these Christmas hymns and carols at Mass or in our homes. As we continue to sing these and other carols during the Christmas Season allow them to speak to your heart.
If you are in the area around Saint John Bosco Parish in Parma Heights – plan to join us on Sunday, January 8 at 2:00 pm in the Church for an hour of Christmas Music with our Music Ministry and Choir, followed by a Christmas cookie social in the Bell Tower. We’d love to have you enjoy the music of the Christmas Season with us!
Question – Are you still singing the songs of Christmas in your home? What is your favorite Christmas carol?