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Don't Let Christmas Caroling Die Out

December 1, 2020 by

The festive season is upon us. Of the many ways in which we remember the birth of our Lord, I believe that singing is the merriest and the most communal. We can have great food and drink, fantastic stories and sharing gemütlichkeit, and all of these things are vital – but without lots and lots of singing, our Christmas would be sorrowfully incomplete. Surely the shepherds sang as they ran across the fields that first Christmas. Did the Magi sing too? I like to think so. In Germany every year, three schoolboys dress up as kings and visit each house, carrying a star and, of course, singing. The first Christmas carols were probably sung in fourth century Rome, or maybe even earlier. In those days they were sung and danced; the word “carol” comes, (as many English words do, through Old French) from the Latin “choraula,” a circular dance. The English priest Percy Dearmer has written a well-researched history of the Christmas carol in the preface to The Oxford Book of Carols. “The typical carol,” he writes,

gives voice to the common emotions of healthy people in language that can be understood and music that can be shared by all. Because it is popular it is therefore genial as well as simple; it dances because it is so Christian. . .

He goes on to say that “the genius of the carol,”

is an antidote to the levity of much present-day literature, music, and drama, made by men who are afraid to touch the deeper issues of life because seriousness is associated in their minds with gloom; for its jubilant melodies can encircle the most solemn of themes: on the other hand, it is an antidote to pharisaism . . .

CarolersScissor-cut by Donal and his wife, Cornelia

In thirteenth century Italy, Francis of Assisi and his companions wrote and sang Christmas carols to the locals. In fact, there was a great surge of carol-writing all over Europe at that time. In England, “wassailers” went from house to house singing and carrying a wooden bowl of wassail. Sometimes, these bowls were designed with multiple spouts; try to drink from one spout and get drenched with wassail by another. And what, exactly, is wassail? A poem by Norman Dubie tells us:

. . . The wassail is
Being made by pouring beer and sherry from dusty bottles
Over thirty baked apples in a large bowl: into
The wassail, young girls empty their aprons of
Cinnamon, ground mace, and allspice berries. A cook adds
Egg whites and brandy.

Sometimes, wassailers would enter homes by force and compel the master of the house to provide them with food and drink. Another tradition was to sing carols in the village orchard and drink a toast to the fruit trees in thankfulness for God’s bounty. A medieval English rhyme goes:

Wassaile the trees, that they may beare
You many a Plum and many a Peare:
For more or lesse fruits they will bring,
As you do give them Wassailing.

Later, during the Reformation, the new Protestant congregations took to carol-singing, and Martin Luther wrote many carols himself. But it was not only preachers and priests who wrote them, it was also the “roaming students,” young people who were “equally at home in an ale-house, in hall, in market place or in cloister” who produced many of the best ones. No wonder some of these songs have such jovial tunes, quite a different flavor to the church music of the time. May today’s roaming students continue this time-honored tradition!

All of this youthful joy and conviviality was too much for the Puritans, who wanted Christmas to be observed as a solemn day of fasting. In 1647 the Puritan Parliament of England cancelled Christmas altogether, along with all other festivals. In both England and the American colonies, citizens were required to work on Christmas Day. Caroling was outlawed. Wassailers could be arrested and fined, and the golden age of the Christmas Carol came to an end. Even after the Puritans fell from power, their gloomy ideas persisted, casting a lasting shadow over the Christmas season. Ebenezer Scrooge (two centuries later) was the embodiment of this worldview; the dour businessman who planned to work in his office on Christmas Day the same as any other day, and called Christmas a “humbug.” I don’t think it was a coincidence that Charles Dickens named his famous story A Christmas Carol. What better name for this little firecracker of a book that would undermine the stuffy puritanism of its day and re-awaken the Christmas spirit in England and the whole world? Dickens was “a sort of solitary pipe down which pours to the twentieth century the original river of Merry England” writes G.K. Chesterton.

As Dearmer writes,

Perhaps nothing is just now of such importance as to increase the element of joy in religion; people crowd in our churches at the Christmas, Easter, and Harvest Festivals, largely because the hymns for those occasions are full of a sound hilarity; if carol-books were in continual use, that most Christian and most forgotten element would be vastly increased, in some of its loveliest forms, all through the year.

Amen, brother Percy! “Carol books in continual use” sounds like something I want to be a part of. And in a sense it is something I am a part of, as singing is a prominent feature of family and church gatherings here on the Bruderhof, not just at Christmas but all year round. May it always remain so!

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About the author

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Donal McKernan

Donal McKernan lives with his wife Cornelia and two children at Danthonia Bruderhof, in New South Wales, Australia.

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