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Here We Go A-Caroling – The History of Christmas Music

Updated: Dec 25, 2022

We celebrate holidays, especially Christmas, with music. Where did that tradition come from? We will learn a bit about the history of Christmas music in today's post.

German Christmas Music
German Christmas Music

Music and Christmas go together hand in hand. We often refer to Christmas songs as "Christmas Carols," however, a "carol" is not necessarily a Christmas song. It refers to dancing in a ring. It may come from Old French caroler which came from the Latin carauler which in turn came from Greek choraules, a flute-player for chorus dancing, and before that choros, a circling dance from Greek drama. So carols can be thought of as songs with joyful mood. While the first "carols" appeared in the Middle Ages, but there was already Christmas music before that.

Pagan Solstice Songs

Odin Carving, Gothenburg Museum of Natural History , Photo: Kristijan Arsov, Unsplash
Odin Carving, Gothenburg Museum of Natural History, Sweden, Photo: Kristijan Arsov, Unsplash

Before Christianity became the dominant religion in the West, pre-Christian pagans had long established festivals and holidays (or holy days) centered around the shortest day of the.year, the Winter Solstice. These festivals include Roman Saturnalia, Nordic Yule, Persian Mithras, and other Midwinter celebrations. (Though we are celebrating on the Solstice which is the first day of the season, it is referred to as "Midwinter" as it marks the middle of the coldest half of the year. Many of our current "Christmas" traditions actually originate with pre-Christian Europe, including Saturnalia's gift-giving, our image of Santa based on the Nordic Odin, kissing under the mistletoe, and music.

The tradition of going door-to-door and singing or "caroling" can be traced back to the waes hael, meaning "good health." Each Midwinter, wassailers would walk through their villages in small groups singing loudly with banish evil spirits and wish good health to their fellow villagers in the middle of the cold, dark, and difficult season. They would drink a drink also called "wassail" made of ale, spices, egg, cream, fruit, and sugar as well. In the 13th century, St. Francis (1181/1182 – Oct. 3, 1226) was inspired by the tradition and began the tradition of Christmas caroling.

Listen to the example of a wassailing song in the video below. The Gloucester Wassail may not date back to the earliest wassailing songs, but it is at least as old as the Middle Ages.

The Gloucester Wassail

Earliest Christmas Songs