There are some things about Christmas that I can take or leave, and others that I really love. One essential element of the festive season as far as I’m concerned is the Christmas carol. If I haven’t raised my voice to sing ‘Once in Royal David’s City‘ or ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear‘ at least once before December 25th then I feel as if it isn’t really Christmas at all.
Carols are such an intrinsic part of the British Christmas that people who don’t set foot in a church from one year’s end to the next make an exception for the Christmas Eve festival of lessons and carols. Most schools put on some form of festive celebration which includes the singing of ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘While Shepherds Watched’, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ and other favourites. And although communal carol singing is less popular than it used to be, it still takes place in the run-up to Christmas in public spaces across the country.
Carol is a very old word, dating back at least to 1300. It originally meant a circle dance, and came from Old French carole, and possibly ultimately from Greek and Latin, but its etymology is obscure. As the OED puts it:
The ulterior etymology of Old French carole and its accompanying verb caroler, is uncertain; nor is it clear whether the verb or the noun takes priority etymologically.
adding sternly: “In any case, a Celtic origin is out of the question”.
The first OED citation for the current meaning – “A song or hymn of joy sung at Christmas in celebration of the Nativity. Rarely applied to hymns on certain other festal occasions” – comes from 1502:
in N. H. Nicolas Privy Purse Expenses Elizabeth of York (1830) 83 Item to Cornishe for setting of a carralle upon Cristmas day.
Elizabeth of York was the widow of Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII, and William Cornishe (or Cornysh) evidently composed the music for a carol to be performed at her court as part of the festivities.
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