It’s Christmas time. Down the dark, silent, snowy streets go groups of young people. Singing softly, they go from one home to another, ring the doorbell, sing a song or two, and depart. In homes throughout the nation, families gather around the piano to sing these songs proclaiming the birth of our Lord and Saviour. In church and in programs we sing or hear them sung again. Amid the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping we often hear them from loud-speakers inside and outside of almost every department store. These songs are carols. The number of them is large, the origins are different and varied, and the types are many. Yet the aim and theme is one – praise and thanksgiving to God for the wonder He has wrought in sending down His Son into our sinful flesh that He might redeem us from sin.
The origin of the word “carol” is uncertain. Some say it comes from the word “carolare” originally denoting “a dance accompanied by singing.” In early religious rites, worshippers joined hands and danced in a circle as they sang together. Others believe that “carol” may be derived from the Greek word for flute player, referring to the musician who accompanied the singing dancers.
After the pagan winter feast had merged with the Christian, the people still danced around nativity scenes to tunes known as carols. Early carols have characteristics of true folk poetry – simplicity and joy. Some are a curious combination of the sacred and profane, while others are rather naïve or even absurd. St. Francis of Assisi is usually credited with being the “Father of the Christmas Carol,” for from him came a new idea of jovial singing of praise.
Our carols really date from the 15th century. At this time, there was a distinct growth in the “democratic spirit of music” and some began to express their own feelings regarding church music, preferring to sing in their own tongues, instead of the Latin.
To cover the sources of all the carols would be impossible, for the origin of many is unknown or shrouded in obscurity. We do know about some of the more familiar ones, however.
The organ of the little church of Arnsdorf near Salzburg, Austria, in the last days before Christmas, 1818, had become unfit for use. This troubled the parish priest, Father Josef Mohr. He felt that now the people should have something special for the Christmas mass. Late on the evening before Christmas Eve, he paused on a hill overlooking the town. Here and there a faint light glimmered in the dark and over all was a vast stillness. Musing, he said, “It must have been something like this that silent holy night in Bethlehem.” Powerfully affected, he hurried home and wrote the words of “Silent Night.” The next day he showed them to Franz Gruber, the church organist, who wrote the music for them. That Christmas, with Father Mohr singing and Gruber playing his guitar, the enthralled people heard the first rendition of this beautiful and perhaps best-loved of all carols.
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is perhaps the best known American carol. It was written by Bishop Phillips Brooks, who left his church for a year to go abroad and tour the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve, in 1865, he rode out to Bethlehem, saw the shepherds in the fields and below him in the starlight the “little town of Bethlehem.” The scene was stamped upon his memory, never to be forgotten. He returned to America and three years later wrote his song for the annual Sunday School program. The church choir director and organist, Lewis H. Redner, wrote the accompanying music.
Tradition has it that the carol “Away in the Manger,” both words and music, was written by Martin Luther for his little sons Hans, one Christmas eve. Authorities, however, doubt this for two reasons. First, the style of this song is entirely different from anything else that Luther wrote. Secondly, this hymn is not familiar to the German people. It is said that Luther did sing his child to sleep and that some writer has imagined this song to be the type he would have sung.
The origin of another familiar carol, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” translated from the Latin “Adeste Fideles,” is somewhat controversial. The words, translated into English by Frederick Oakley in 1841, are said by some to have been written in the 13th century by the Bishop of Albano. Others say it is a graduale, or responsive anthem, of the Cistercians, an order of monks. The music, called the Portuguese Hymn, is credited to Vincent Novello and Marco Portogallo, the chapel master for the king of Portugal.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was written by Charles Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist denomination, author of 6,000 or more hymns. This carol, it is said, was inspired when he was walking to church one Christmas Day and was thrilled by the joyous chiming of church bells in London. The music with which it is commonly sung was arranged from Mendelssohn by William H. Cummings in 1850, over a hundred years after the words had been written.
These carols, coming from different parts of the world, written under different circumstances, written in different times and in different languages, show to us that God’s church is universal, gathered from every nation and tongue. His church is a holy catholic Church which “the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, by his Spirit and Word…chosen to everlasting life.”