The Christmas carol proves a ubiquitous staple of the holiday season, stretching through time and across cultures. Although many contemporary Christmas pay homage to the Nativity of Jesus Christ, carols were originally anthems of pagan worship. Sung most notably during the celebration of the winter solstice, carols accompanied ritual dances around ceremonial arrangements of stone; in fact, the word “carol” means to dance or sing praises. It was only after the introduction of Christianity that carols began to memorialize the birth of the Savior. During the reign of the early English monarchs, minstrels would spread Christmas carols from village to village, regaling each audience with a slightly different version of each holiday ditty. A sharp decline in the popularity of Christmas caroling was noted, however, when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans assumed control of England and effectively banned the celebration of Christmas. Fortunately for Christmas lovers and recording artists, Christmas carols eventually made a stunning comeback in Western culture.
As history continually progressed, Christmas carols often bore the marks of human conflicts. During the December of 1914, a month engulfed by the horrors of the First World War, weary soldiers in trenches reached a temporary truce by singing Christmas carols to their respective enemies. The melodies drifting across no-man’s-land eventually gave German troops the courage to emerge from their foxholes to initiate a seasonal ceasefire on Christmas morning. The two warring forces came together to gift each other with elusive offerings of sweets, compete in friendly soccer matches, and, of course, sing more Christmas carols. A few decades later, during the Cold War, a concerned songwriter composed a Christmas carol to promote peace. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Gloria Shayne Baker penned the iconic lyrics of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” in an attempt to end the potentially deadly conflict.
Christmas carols were often present in much of human history’s much more lighthearted moments. Following the invention of the radio, the sacred carol “Oh Holy Night” was the second musical selection to be broadcasted. A few decades later, during the Christmas season of 1965, the crew of Gemini 7 listened to the comforting melody of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” while in orbit.
While the underlying sentiment of Christmas carols remains relatively constant between cultures, many carols bear slight differences from nation to nation. In Australia, carolers do not sing about partiges, turtle doves, geese, and other common domestic animals while performing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Instead, they incorporate their own, more exotic species of wildlife in the song. Lines of this unorthodox carol recall gifts of kangaroos, numbats, wombats, dingoes, and “an emu up a gum tree.” While English-speaking countries, including Australia and the United States, place an almost equal amount of focus on secular and religious carols, most European cultures regard Christmas as an entirely religious experience. This attitude is reflected in their seasonal repertoires, Christmas collections composed mostly of songs based on the birth of Jesus.
Though carols may carry different meanings across eras and cultures, the common experience of chiming in to the tune of a Christmas carol is shared by people of all backgrounds, ages, and races as the world unites for a season to celebrate the hope of salvation.