Christmas Carols (Advent 4)

Date: 18 Dec 2016

Text (Not referred to): Isaiah 9:2-7 & Matthew 1:18-25

Today we are holding our Carol Service, a service that we hold at around this time every year; a time when we gather together to sing the traditional songs that have been sung for as long as most of us can remember, and a great deal longer than that. The carols that we sing are what could be described as “traditional” with many of them having been written in the 18th and 19th centuries or even earlier than that. Of today’s carols, four were written in the 19th century whilst the last one we will be singing today comes from the 17th century!

We do this every year as part of the “tradition” of Christmas and people who wouldn’t normally appear in church do attend just so they can sing carols. They are also happy to attend the annual Carols Around the Tree evening when they brave the cold to join together in singing these happy songs. However, I have to ask, why do we do that? Do we know why we sing carols or how the “tradition” started?

It seems that carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago although they were really pagan songs that were sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced around stone circles. This seems reasonable given that the word carol actually means dance or a song of praise or joy. Because of their nature, these original carols were sung all year round although it is only the tradition of singing them at Christmas that has survived. Incidentally, a Christmas carol often includes the word “noël” which comes from the French word for Christmas.

The early Christians took over the pagan celebrations at Christmas and early songwriters wrote new carols for them to sing. One of the earliest recorded of these early carols was written in 129 AD by a Roman Bishop and was titled “Angel’s Hymn”. This Bishop decreed that it should be sung at the Christmas service held in Rome. It was many years later when another famous carol was written. It was in 760 that Comas of Jerusalem wrote such a carol for the Greek Orthodox Church. Following that it wasn’t long before Christian hymn writers all over Europe started to write these wonderful Christmas songs. Unfortunately they were written in Latin meaning that few could understand them!

After a period when Christmas celebrations fell into disuse it was St Francis of Assisi who revived things when in 1223 he started his Nativity Plays. Although the choruses of the songs that he used were written in Latin, thankfully the verses were written in the local language, something that helped their use to spread across mainland Europe. The earliest of these carols was written in 1410 although these early carols tended to reflect untrue stories that were based very loosely on the Christmas story. Many were seen as entertaining rather than having any religious connection and were sung by groups of travelling minstrels.

The public and overt celebration of Christmas and singing of carols in this country was stopped in 1647 by Oliver Cromwell. However, thankfully the songs and the tradition survived and the songs were sung in secret.

Before singing carols in public became popular, there were occasionally official carol singers known as “Waits”. These groups were led by important local leaders and they were called “Waits” because they only sang on Christmas Eve; a time known as “watchnight” or “waitnight” in memory of the shepherds who were watching over their flocks. Christmas celebrations only started on Christmas Eve. Imagine that, no commercialism, no huge advertising from late October, no big spending splurges, and no “Black Friday”!

From that time on, that is the Victorian period, carol singing at Christmas became very popular with Carols By Candlelight being especially popular. Carols led by bands of the Salvation Army are also still very popular even in this 21st century secular age!

Perhaps not surprisingly there is nothing in the Bible about the singing of carols. The closest I can get, and here I’m stretching things somewhat, is in Luke 2:20 where after the shepherds had seen the infant Jesus in the stable they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which was just as they had been told.” David wrote in Psalm 69:30, “I will praise God's name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving” and to me that indicates that both David and those famous shepherds were singing God’s praises for what He had done. Tenuous but hopefully thought provoking.

When we sing carols each Christmas, that is what we are doing, singing God’s praises for sending His Son Jesus to be with us. It is only right and proper that we should do that and do it joyfully just as those shepherds may well have done.

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