The History of Christmas Carols from Paganism to Charles Dickens

Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas Carols. They were pagan songs sung at the Winter Solstice. While many carols we are familiar with have a definite Christian theme, the tradition of going door-to-door singing to your neighbors comes from the pagan tradition called wassailing, where the singers would march through the village singing to wish all good health and banish all evil from the village.

The history of modern Christmas carols can be traced back to people who lived in Britain during the Middle Ages. Around the twelfth century, word spread about a man called St. Francis of Assisi who was very popular throughout Italy by singing songs about Jesus Christ’s birth. These are considered to be the earliest known Christian songs that have survived through history. Up until that time, hymns sung in the church were in Latin and always somber in nature. St. Francis of Assisi wanted people to rejoice about the birth of Jesus Christ and began organizing parades and Nativity plays. The people jumped on his holiday bandwagon and began transforming their drinking songs into holiday carols by replacing the words with the ones that told the story of the Nativity, sung in their native language – not in Latin. “Deck the Halls” was originally a 16th century Wales song with lyrics such as, “Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel,” which became “Don we now our gay apparel.” However, the church was not a fan of this new tradition, so the songs were mainly sung privately in homes, not church.

However, it wasn’t until 1367 when France started observing what they call “the feast day of Adam,” where every year on December 24th, all churches would sing hymns for this special occasion. On this day, the churches were filled with song and celebration.

Modern Christmas Carols can be dated back to 1410 in Germany. During this time, a musician known as Johannes de Grocheo composed the three-part French carol “L’Homme Arme,” which is considered to be the oldest known original French carol.

Queen Elizabeth I of England was a fan of Christmas Carols, as was her successor, King James VI of Scotland. Both monarchs loved what history calls “Christmastide,” a time period that starts on December 24th and ends on January 6th, where you celebrate the Nativity or birth of Jesus Christ. But by the 17th century, England had lost its growing Christmas cheer. The Puritan movement thought both that celebrating Christmas so joyously to be a sinful thing and that carols tied them to pagan traditions. Oliver Cromwell, who ruled the Kingdom as Lord Protector from 1649 to 1658, was a supporter of the puritanical movement and furthered their efforts to squash these immoral holiday traditions. So, after a decade of silencing what was then called “Christmastide,” it fell away and was forgotten for almost two hundred years.

In 1840, when Queen Victoria married Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, she embraced his Germanic Christmas traditions. In my book, The Stranger in the Cup – How to Read Your Luck and Fate in the Tea Leaves (co-authored with Catherine Yronwode), I mentioned how Queen Victoria made afternoon tea an English tradition – simply because her people wanted to support and be like their beloved Queen. In the same way, she and Albert brought the Christmas tree back in fashion, and, before long, everyone had one in their home. This began a movement of people working to bring back the forgotten holiday. When Charles Dickens wrote and published A Christmas Carol in 1843 in an effort to “help open the hearts of the prosperous and powerful towards the poor and powerless,” it sealed the deal – Christmas was back.

Note: I featured this Annie Lennox video because Annie Lennox’s performance of the song and the unique way the video was filmed blends both Pagan and Christian history together. The carol, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, is thought to be almost 400 years old. At the time, ‘merry’ meant ‘mighty,’ not ‘jolly.’