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Column 27th December 2017

The story of a Christmas Carol

Last week I covered the Wantage Mummers performance on Boxing Day.

I haven’t been in Wantage for very long but one tradition we have created is to walk into the Market Place on Boxing Day to see the performance.

This mention of Christmas traditions has got me thinking. How far back do they go?

We know that Christmas trees are a Victorian invention as are Christmas cards but according to my research, carols were first sung thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas Carols.

They were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrating the shortest day and the lighter days to come (the rebirth of the sun).

The word ‘carol’ comes from the ancient Greek 'choros', meaning "dancing in a circle," and from the Old French word 'carole', meaning "a song to accompany dancing").

The Feast of Juul was a pre-Christian festival observed in Scandinavia at the time of the December solstice.

Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun.

A Yule or Juul log was brought in and burned on the hearth in honour of the Scandinavian god Thor.

So both carols and yule logs predate Christianity.

Early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas and gave people Christian songs to sing in Latin instead of pagan ones, but they didn’t become very popular until St. Francis of Assisi created Nativity Plays in Italy in 1223.

The people in the plays sang songs or 'canticles' that told the story during the plays in native languages.

As I mentioned last week the mystery plays still follow this tradition and date from the 1300’s.

The Windsor Carol Book dates from about 1430-1444 but doesn’t include many carols we would recognise.

Some well-known carols date from the 18th century, including ‘A virgin most pure’, ‘The first noel’, ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’, ‘Tomorrow shall be my dancing day’, 'I saw three ships’, ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’, ‘O Come all ye faithful’ and ‘Whilst shepherds watched’.

‘Silent Night’, ‘Once in Royal David's City’, ‘See amid the Winters Snow’, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, and ‘Away in a Manger are 19th century.

Others are younger and not Christian – take ‘White Christmas’, ‘Little Drummer Boy’, ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow’ ‘Santa Claus is coming to Town’ or ‘Jingle Bells’ for instance.

Anyway, Christmas is over. Easter comes next. Easter Egg anyone?


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