Carols are a rich part of Christmas, a tradition so beautiful that some say the angels over Bethlehem were the first carolers.
The word carol means popular song, of joyful nature, in celebration of an occasion such as May Day, Easter or Christmas. The word grew out of an old French word that meant round dance with singing.
December 25 was not established as Christmas until the middle of the fourth century, and the earliest Christmas music consisted of chants and psalms.
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi wanted to find a way to communicate the story of Christmas to the illiterate. He borrowed some animals and enlisted townsfolk to portray the shepherds, holy family and wise men.
They called his live nativity scene a crèche, and simple carols were sung. After that time, St. Francis was known as the father of the Christmas carol.
So, in the beginning, carols were a way to communicate Christian truth. An early example is ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,’ from the 16th century. Through its symbolic lyrics – the ‘gift’ stood for the gift of Jesus as Savior, the two turtledoves were the Old and New Testament – English Catholics could express their faith.
The earliest English carols date from the 15th century. Those carols – characterized by their simplicity of expression – were often either folk songs or adaptations of pagan songs. The oldest Christmas carol in the English language still sung today is ‘The First Nowell.’ This carol was not printed until 1833, but most historians feel that it was around at least 300 years before that. (The title to the song has two spellings – ‘Nowell’ or ‘Noel.’)
One of the most popular Christmas carols, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful,’ has many stories. Because of his ties with St. Francis of Assisi, there were many who thought that St. Bonaventura wrote it in the 13th century, while others thought it came later. A man named John Redding was named as its composer in the early 19th century.
In 1915, it became No. 2 on the list of top tunes. A few years later, a British scholar researched its origins and found that pastor Francis Wade had written it in about 1750. The song was penned in Latin (‘Adeste Fideles’) in Wade’s own writing.
John Wade was a highly skilled calligrapher. He had been given the assignment of keeping a historical record of the church’s music. He copied hymns of the church and managed to also write some of his own. In 1751, Wade published his own book, ‘Cantus Diversi’ – in which ‘Adeste Fideles’ appears.
In 1860, the song came back to England, and another story of its origin was born. It was first performed at the Portuguese Embassy, so it was given the title of the ‘Portuguese Hymn.’ Finally, in the 1940s, the true story was discovered, and Wade is now known as the rightful composer.