Christmas Carols

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the November 2001, A.S. XXXVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

One of the more popular Christmas traditions is the singing of carols. While most sung today were composed after 1700, carols nevertheless are a long time tradition. This essay will explore this tradition.

Carols arose in the twelfth century in France and presumably were imported into England while it was a part of the Avgevin Empire. The etymology of the word carol is unclear with numerous explanations offered. The original carols were dances with a vocal component. There would be a lead singer who sings the stanza while the rest will sing the refrain. The associated dances are described as circle or progressional dances. The actual steps have been lost but later dances such as the Maltese, Montarde, and Tangle Bransle are likely echoes of these early dances. They cut across the social spectrum from the courts to be peasants, though they were most often done in the cities and towns.

While not liturgical in nature, they were principally done during festivals, with the Church holidays being the most prominent. Carols would also be the welcoming entertainment for major nobles entering a town. Carols were songs of popular devotion, sung in informal venues. Thus every occasion had its carols, though Christmas and Easter were the most prolific. Not that the Church approved of this as dancing carols was among the activities that were routinely denounced in sermons and manual of confessions.

The standard structure of a carol is aabA with the A as the refrain sometimes also known as the burden. Some carols started with the refrain. The number of verses is not fixed. The words of these songs could be in Latin as well as the vernacular and even a mixture of the two known as macaronic. Perhaps the best known carol of the period is Agincourt Carol, which of course celebrates the 1415 victory. The lyrics of an early fifteenth century Christmas carol are:

Refrain: Nova, nova, Ave fit ex Eva

1. Gabriel of high degree,
He came down from Trinity
From Nazareth to Galilee.

2. I met a maiden in a place,
I kneel’d down afore her face
And said Hail Mary, full of grace.

3. When the maiden heard tell of this,
She was full sore abash’d, I wis,
And ween’d that she had done amiss.

4. Then said the angel: Dread not thou,
For ye be conceiv’d with great virtue
Whose name shall be call’d Jesu.

5. It is not yet six weeks agone
Since Elizabeth conceived John,
As it was prophesied beforn.

6. Then said the maiden: Verily
I am your servant right truly:
Ecce ancilla Domini.

When carols ceased to be danced is unclear. They lost favor to the Basse dance in the courts and noble houses around 1350. Presumably it was later for the lower classes and probably evolved into ferandoles and branles. As a vocal form, it lasted though most of the sixteenth century. The lyrics of over 500 carols of all types survive.

The Christmas carols of today inherit the place of the carols of old, though not their form. Those carols evolved to more sophisticated forms of music such as the madrigal and ballad. It is a quirk of history that Christmas continues to inspire joyous popular music while other holidays enjoy only the occasional odd tune.



Knighton, Tess, and David Fallows, ed. Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music. New York: Schirmer Books, 1992.

McGee, Timothy. Medieval Instrumental Dances. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

McKinnon, James, ed. Antiquity and the Middle Ages: From Ancient Greece to the 15th Century. Music and Society Vol. 1. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Thurston, Dart, ed. Invitation to Medieval Music 1: Music of the Earlier Fifteenth century. London: Stainer & Bell Ltd., 1967.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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