" . . . The playing of the merry organ, / Sweet singing in the choir . . . " These lines from one of the oldest English Christmas carols, The Holly and the Ivy, remind us of the importance of music and singing to the celebration of Christmas. Special Christmas hymns have been a feature of the celebration of Christ's birth since the fourth century, when they were written to help teach Christians about their faith. An example of such early Christmas music is the hymn Corde natus ex Parentis, written by fifth-century Spanish poet Prudentius, which is still sung today as Of the Father's love begotten. But how did the tradition of Christmas carols develop?

Christmas carol-singers

In the ninth and tenth centuries the monasteries of Northern Europe, under the guidance of figures like St Bernard of Clairvaux, continued the effort to use music to educate people about the religious meaning of Christmas. Their 'Sequence' or 'Prose' took the form of rhyming Latin verses. By the twelfth century, these verses were being set to the music of popular songs, thanks to the work of people like Adam of St Victor, a monk in Paris.

Bernard of Clairvaux

The influence of St Francis of Assisi was crucial from the thirteenth century onward, in France and Germany as well as Italy, in the growing trend of writing Christmas songs in the native language of a country, rather than using Latin, to ensure that everyone could sing them and understand their meaning. Carols could be written to accompany religious festivals, or to be sung during mystery plays, like the 1591 Coventry Carol.

Francis of Assisi

Some of the carols still sung today, such as Good King Wenceslas and The Holly and the Ivy, can be traced back to medieval times. Christmas carols in English were first published in 1426 by John of Awdlay, a priest based in Shropshire. These carols were probably sung by wassailers. 'Wassail' is a word that comes from the Anglo-Saxon toast 'be in good health', and has Norse roots as well.

The medieval custom of wassailing involved people going from door to door, usually on Twelfth Night on 5 or 6 January, to sing Christmas carols. Normally the wassailers would be peasants visiting the wealthiest feudal lords in the area, and offering their blessing in form of song in return for food and drink, as in the oldest known wassail song:

God bless the master of this house

Likewise the mistress too,

And all the little children

That round the table go.

A wassailing group

For all the careful politeness of these lines, the song goes on to remind the master and mistress that while they sit in comfort, the singers will go out again to "the mire" of their rather less fortunate lives. Christmas celebrations were rooted in pagan winter festivals such as the ancient Roman Saturnalia, which involved the reversal of authority for a time, with slaves commanding or admonishing masters. In medieval England, this tradition survived in the 'misrule' of customs such as wassailing, and other ceremonies surrounding the singing of carols - which could often end in drunkenness, gambling, and sexual promiscuity.

Scenes typical of Saturnalia

At this time, carols were more likely to be performed by groups of singers and dancers during ceremonies like wassailing, than sung in church. Writers of the time complained about the behaviour of some of these carolling groups. The sixteenth-century English carol We Wish You A Merry Christmas probably developed from the custom of wassailing, and the threat near its end that 'we won't go until we've got some' reflected the way such celebrations could get out of hand.

That said, the purpose of the carols was always to teach the faithful about religious mysteries. An example of one of the 'dancing' carols is Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, which was first published by William Sandys in 1833, but probably dates from medieval England. Here, Christ is made to explain the Incarnation:

Then was I born of a virgin pure,

Of her I took fleshly substance;

Thus was I knit to man's nature

To call my true love to my dance.

A mystery play being performed at Chester, England

Medieval and early sixteenth century carols were more closely connected with the church when they were used as part of the mystery plays, or miracle plays, written to teach the Scriptures at a time when most people could not read. In England there is still a great love for the Coventry Carol, which was written in the early sixteenth century as part of a mystery play performed in the northern city of Coventry, to tell the story of Christmas. The carol was sung during the part of the play that told of Herod's order to kill all male children under the age of two in Bethlehem, to ensure he would not be threatened by the birth of a new 'King of the Jews':

Herod, the king, in his raging,

Charged he hath this day

His men of might, in his own sight,

All children young to slay.

Martin Luther (34427)

After the Protestant Reformation, the German reformer Martin Luther was among those who wrote carols, and encouraged people to use them in worship. Mostly carols were kept alive within communities, passed down from generation to generation. Their continued importance to worship was seen, for example, in the eighteenth-century Methodist movement, during which reformer Charles Wesley wrote the lyrics of several carols, including Hark the Herald Angels Sing, which was then set to music written by Felix Mendelssohn.

Charles Wesley

A new interest in recording and preserving popular songs like carols developed in the nineteenth century. This led to Wesley's Hark the Herald Angels Sing appearing in print for the first time, along with Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, The First Noel, I Saw Three Ships and God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, in the 1833 book Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, by William B. Sandys. Another popular Christmas carol dating from the nineteenth century is, of course, Silent Night, which was created in 1818 by Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber for Midnight Mass at the St Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria.

William Sandys's 1833 collection of carols

Carols were considered an important feature of the revival of Christmas celebrations and traditions in Victorian times. This is reflected in Charles Dickens' choice of a title for his novel A Christmas Carol of 1843. In its opening scenes, only one carol singer is brave enough to approach the door of miserly hero Ebenezer Scrooge - and is promptly chased off with threats of violence. But by the end of the novel Scrooge has fully embraced the Christmas spirit.

As we sing carols at Christmas, we connect with traditions, and sometimes even controversies, that are centuries old. Hopefully, they also bring back to us our own memories of the joy and excitement of Christmases past and present.