Christmas Music: From Pagans to Present
Did the Druids down their ale and sing "Here We Go Wassailing?"
Not exactly, but close. The origins of the music that we embrace each year as traditional Christmas carols were originally birthed from the bellies of pagan songs and dances. In fact, the word 'carol' itself comes from the Greek word choraulein. A choraulein was an ancient circle dance performed to flute music and early carols were used in plays by Greeks. Romans performed them in their celebrations of the Winter Solstice -- Saturnalia.
These early songs and their derivations became popular among the ancients and were sung at birthdays, weddings and multiple celebrations throughout the year.
Yes, our blessed and profane Christmas songs traveled a long and twisted path from secular sources into and out of Latin, through multiple banishments by the Church, Oliver Cromwell, and Puritans to name a few. Today carols are generally accepted by religious and non-religious Christmas celebrants and by all but a few Christian sects.
In the beginning of true Christmas carols, hymns and old carols, based upon melodies of Jewish temple music, were sung in Latin as part of a worship service. The church, attempting to eradicate the influence of lingering pagan customs, eventually prohibited these songs from sacred services.
Historically, St. Francis of Assissi (1182 - 1286) is often credited with re-introducing carols and dancing (also forbidden by the Church) to the people of Grecchio, a small Italian village. Granted special permission by the Pope, St. Francis led an outdoor midnight Mass recreating the manger scene. This new idea of re-enacting the first Christmas spread throughout Europe and was paralleled by the growth of carols.
Read on about the history of Christmas music >>>