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A History Of Caroling

From pagan days and drinking halls to high church and holiness, we’re looking at the history of the Christmas carol.

Caroling has a long and colorful tradition and not always around the holidays. (ronnie44052/Flickr)

Caroling has a long and colorful tradition and not always around the holidays. (ronnie44052/Flickr)

It is full-on Christmastime now. Christmas music has taken over a lot of airwaves for weeks with pop tunes that celebrate snow and Santa Claus. But there’s a big, older songbook out there too, that many, many people still know by heart.

Christmas carols learned in streets and homes and churches. Many are old songs, even pre-Christian, repurposed for praise. There are drinking songs from France and England. There is “high church” and holy.

This hour, On Point: the history of the Christmas carol.

-Tom Ashbrook


Ronald Clancy, author of Sacred Christmas Music: The Stories Behind the Most Beloved Songs of Devotion and Best-Loved Christmas Carols: The Stories Behind Twenty-five Yuletide Favorites.

Ian Russell, caroler, ethnomusicologist and Director of the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

From Tom’s Reading List

Time “No matter how high one’s tolerance for cold weather, egg nog and three-part harmony, there comes a time in every Christmas caroler’s evening when he or she thinks to themselves, Why am I doing this? ”

TLC “Why do Christmas carolers walk around the neighborhood singing? The idea of Christmas caroling brings to mind jolly bands of churchgoers, dressed in shawls and top hats, going door-to-door, also known as wassailing — an Old Norse term — to spread the spirit of Christmas through hymns. Whether it’s “Deck the Halls,” “Joy to the World” or “Silent Night,” Christmas carols provide the soundtrack to the holidays.”

BBC “Whether it’s in the pub, a church or out on the street, people in the UK are keeping local – and often unique – carol-singing traditions alive. But what are they? ”

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  • Alan Dorman

    Anyone interested in the brain-child of this kind of public trolling should youtube “Improv Everywhere.”

    Fun fact: Good King Wenceslas was known in medieval Bohemia as Duke Vaclav.

  • Phil

    I’m sure that this will be discussed during the program, but the reasons that Christians share and testify of their faith with others (admittedly, sometimes pushing it on people who are not interested in hearing it), is that we believe that born again Christians have THE message that the world needs to hear.  Namely, that ever since Adam and Eve chose to disobey God in the Garden of Eden, that man has been alienated and separated from God and that God paid the penalty that man owed for his sin by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to voluntarily die on the cross to make that payment.  His literal resurrection demonstrates that sin has been adequately paid for and that anyone who sincerely repents of their sin and embraces Him as Savior and Lord is restored to an intimate relationship with God and has the certainty of eternal life in heaven.  For those of you who reject this message, that is fine and certainly your right.  But please consider that the motives of most people who share their faith are sincere, and we believe that we have a responsibility to share this message just as a physician or scientist who found a cure for cancer would have a responsibility to share that with the world as well.  Merry Christmas to all!

    • Phil

      I neglected to say that Christmas caroling, nativity displays in one’s yard, and other outward displays are one way of publicly sharing one’s Christian faith with other people.

      • Tina

        Phil, I made a comment, above, about how the carols impressed me as a child with a sensibility that there were other children who were less fortunate and needed to be thought about and cared for.  My main thoughts were that Jesus loved the little children, and that meant the little children of various faiths worldwide.  Somehow, this was the main message I got thru years of Sunday School with confirmation in the eighth grade.  It has only been in my late adult life that I’ve come to realize that so much of the Christian message was about sin and redemption, and so on.  I truly missed all that either because of my own nature or because of the radically ecumenical program our main stream Protestant church practiced.  I came away with more knowledge about other religions than about the tenets of Christianity that you mention and that I’ve heard in these later years of my life.  Consequently, I often feel lost in the Christian churches I’ve tried to attend.  I think my particular experience was closer to that of those attending the Unitarian Church, and except for social hierarchy shenanigans in my local Unitarian  congregation, I have felt much more comfortable there. And, growing up in a very mixed-religion area of the country, I’ve shied away from the proselytizing part of Christianity completely.  Yet, all that said, the carols we heard today had the very tonalities that I have loved since I was a child, and they truly bring deep messages to me that feel so familiar and compelling.  Interesting differences, I’d say.  

    • JustSayin

      …so as long as one is “sincere”, any action applied onto the someone is a good thing. I will try to apply a warm feeling to the guy who sincerely broke into my house and stole all my stuff. I know he was sincere!

      …and scientists share a cure for cancer because cancer kills people. People do die in great numbers from religion, but the cure was not accepted with love and joy when a sincere Hutchens went caroling.

      If the secular segment of the population wants to be free of continuous Christian assault, then that is their American right. Freedom from religion is also freedom of religion.

      Merry Christmas.

      • Nutricj

        justsayin, do you mean Hitchens?

        • JustSayin

          Yeah. Sorry I typed before I had my coffee. 

    • Robert Pierce

      Bah! Humbug! Any idiot knows that the Great Mystery cannot be put into words. Those who do so, like Phil, drain it of Love and Beauty, turning numinous symbols into pedantry, and ultimately into wickedness. I have long ago given up the Evangelical delusion, but the second video above brought me chills and tears in my eyes, as I realized that this sort-of-spontaneous performance was all about Truth and not about religion. Let those hear, who have ears to hear.

      • JustSayin

        I used to call this the difference between religion and faith. The religion being the machinery of power, corruption, and greed. Faith being the silent communion with one’s God.

        I wish religion were extinct, and faith would be the accepted norm. IMO the hubris to assert that an omnipotent and omniscient God cannot conduct His business on Earth without the assistance of an army of arrogant humans who believe they are stand ins for God Himself, is the first failing of faith.

        • Gerald Fnord

          Faith is not depending on evidence, and not saying ‘I don’t know’ when you don’t have such or adequate sucjh.  When you don’t depend on evidence, the person with the loudest voice (literally or figuratively so—very often the voice is ‘loud’ in that the speaker is a good hacker of primate minds) ends up defining reality, and religion is inevitable.

          I think a general and non-specific gratitude—to those who built that whose fruits we enjoy, to those who don’t harm us though they could, to the universe in general faute de mieux—were better for establishing mutual aid and benevolence.

          • JustSayin

            Faith is an irrational act, but it is also required for atheism.

            I will always be an Agnostic, because logic provides it as the only position that in not hypocrisy. As far as the Gods are concerned, and as part of their very definition, they cannot be logically proven or dis-proven to exist.

            The world is more than we know, and less than we imagine.

          • Nutricj

            no, no, no- the world is far more than we can possibly imagine. we cannot, are not capable of imagining all that there is. we are not equipt. there is no faith required of an athiest. i am an agnostic, anti-theist- meaning i haven’t a clue what is out there, or any need to know, but i am against religion. but, i relent and pay my dues, as most of my loved ones are die hard religious.

            all of us are hypocrites

      • Phil

        Do you really believe that anyone who disagrees with you is an idiot?  There are many people who have spent their lives studying and investigating theology who believe that the Bible is true, who believe that the Bible is truth and that we must come to God on His terms as outlined in the Bible, and not on our terms.  Whether you agree with that or not, I think it is very degrading to refer to people who have arrived at this conclusion after much thought and searching as idiots.

        • Gerald Fnord

          Plenty of smart people have believed in witches, vampires, a flat Earth with four corners, and the like.  Intelligence misdirected by inadequate or just-plain-wrong information does not produce good results.  That being so, ‘idiot’ is an unfortunate term, the more fortunate term being ‘unfortunate victims’.

          The popularity of false information is more a statement about inadequate mechanisms for pruning such—tradition trumping evidence and forbidding examination—the extent such bad information puffs up our egos (“I’m so important that God and Lucifer contend for my soul!”) and of the social utility of such (e.g., creating a stable society by convincing the population that it is only right that they be serfs bound to land owned by an higher entity in the Great Chain of Being, or employees of a natural or artificial person)

        • Robert Pierce

          You write
          well, so of course you aren’t an idiot. However, because you reify the
          metaphors, symbols, and poetry of the Bible, denying scientific and spiritual
          truth, I cannot respect your opinions. You will no doubt be shocked to learn
          that I fear you people, since many of you wish to set up a “Christian”
          theocracy in the Talibanic mode. (See http://www.religioustolerance.org/
          .) Since human nature has changed very slowly over the last 100,000 years, I
          believe that fundamentalists in any religion are the modern scribes and
          Pharisees denounced by a certain great spiritual teacher. Also, members of the
          fundamentalist church I was in had harsher terms for me than “idiot.”

  • Brett

    …And no commie-pinko atheist is gonna take away my God-given right to celebrate Christmas! Those terrorist-loving socialists will have to pry Christmas from my cold, dead hands! 

  • nj


    It’s coming on Christmas, they’re cutting down treesThey’re putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peaceOh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPCJxVCcWtk&feature=related

  • Ellen Dibble

    I’m showing a root for carol in corolla, or circle.

  • Jbastianini

    I learned Christmas carols in Hingham, Ma public elementary school in the fifties.  It would be totally “politically incorrect” today but we used to practice weeks for a presentation to our parents.  Most of the carols were religious.  I’m a huge supporter of the separation of church and state but I have to cop to happy memories of those Christmas pageants.  

    • Phil

      Look how far we have progressed as a society as we acknowledge a holiday but we can’t acknowledge what the actual name of the holiday is!  How silly all of our political correctness really is when you stop and think about it.

      • nj

        “We” don’t all “acknowledge” a single holiday. 

        It may surprise you to learn that not everyone is Christian, not everyone is a deist, not everyone regards this time of year in the same way. 

        • Phil

          Believe me, I KNOW that not everyone is a Christian.  My point was that we wish “Happy Holidays” and dance around the fact that the holiday that we must be politically correct to not mention is Christmas.

    • Tina

      We sang Christmas carols in public school in the fifties, too, but we also sang Hanukkah songs and all had our own dredls (spelling?).  By seventh grade, we learned middle eastern dances some of which were Christian, while others were Jewish and Islamic.  By twelfth grade World Literature, we were reading excerpts from the world’s great religious texts, and our whole class kept on “converting” with each different text that we would read.  No matter what our own religion was, the entire class would be swayed to convert to the religion represented by the particular text we were reading that week!  All along, all the faiths were given equal attention, and I think that was a good thing.  Even the kids who insisted that there was no God, or that there was no way that we could know if there were a God had equal opportunity to express their opinions.  Then, in college, I had a lot of art history, and that ecumenical approach was again fundamental to our learning, expanded even farther back in time to even earlier, pre-literate societies.  It was all very interesting and very respectful.  I was very fortunate, I believe.  

  • Annocon

    As art of our chorus outreach program, our group goes into nursing homes during the Christmas season. believe me, these efforts are rewarded with some residents singing along, and many who are obviously moved by our professional rendition of carols.
    The rewards go both ways, and we will continue to do this every year.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I’m curious about Yule, apparently from old Celtic geol or something, a word for Christmas, must be very old. 

  • Ellen Dibble

    wassail,  derived from the word for health, hale and hearty, meaning Be well, Wes Heil, something like that. (Anglo Saxon, it looks like)

    • Tina

      Ellen!  I love what you’re doing with these derivations!  Thanks and Happy Holidays!

  • Gerald Fnord

    As an atheist who is distressed by the anti-hedonic nature of much religion, the pagan-influenced carols and customs impress me the most.  You can keep Calvinist or Catholic soteriology—-give me a dead wren in a box you can see for a penny or a beer.

    You don’t have to believe in a notional Son of God to be glad that slaves got as much of a month off in the bad old days if they were smart about getting the hugest Yule log possible and soaking it well.

    • Phil

      You are a very cynical, negative person.  I feel sorry for you.

    • JustSayin

      You are entitled to view one virtual Yule log on Netflix and burn away your virtual sins.

    • Anonymous


  • Robert Pierce

    Is it to late to request hearing and discussion of “Personent Hodie,” as arranged by Gustav Holst? Thanks anyway for this program.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Didn’t Christianity begin as basically subversive, anti-institutional; that power came from the individual not from the State?  So co-opting the pagan rituals that licensed the power of religion to the administration is a historical conundrum to me.  It’s one thing to co-opt Isis and Egyptian songs — actually didn’t Islam later object to music?  But then the Norse and Celtic additions must be far later, far later than when the Roman Empire was the, um, issue.

  • Linda

    Participated in a flash mob of the Hallelujah Chorus a couple weeks ago with the Trinity Church Boston choir.  We “crashed” the food court at the Prudential Center.  It was great fun and the audience really appreciated it.  It’s been the height of my holiday singing season – I sing with two other groups, one the Dedham Choral Society, the other a smaller a capella group in my town.  The spontaneous nature of the flash mob, and the reaction from the crowd was wonderful! Sing on!

    • Ellen Dibble

      A brother sent me the Arby’s version of that Hallelujah Chorus flashmob — a link is right up top on this thread.  What fun!

  • Pam Borys

    My family has caroled to neighbors for many generations. The tradition began in Williamsburg, VA and was restarted in Greenwich, CT where I grew up and thought everyone drank wassail and wished on a yule log!

    In Woburn, MA, and Brookfield, CT the yearly tradition continues.

    My favorite carols are older English settings such as Whiles Shepherds Watched to Ilkley Moor, Once in Royal David’s City, and the many Wassail songs.

  • Michiganjf

    When I was a kid in the early 1970′s, Austin had one of the best snows in the last 70 years.

    One kid’s father put snow chains on his truck, hitched up a large flatbed trailer, tossed in some hay, and began driving slowly through miles of neighborhoods, picking up kids who all carolled through the streets for hours… he eventually repeated his drive in reverse, dropping every kid back off where they had been collected.

    We must have had almost fifty kids on that trailer at one point, and it was a blast… without a doubt, the best carolling experience of my life.

    Somehow, I doubt this could be repeated here today.

    Saftey concerns over the kids, liability issues and such,and I kind of doubt today’s generation of kids would be as into doing the same thing we enjoyed so many years ago… I mean, they’d love it if they gave it a chance, but would kids just run out and pile onto the trailer the same way they did so many years ago, and even know all the lyrics?
    I kind of doubt it. Great memory though!

    • Tina

      What a GREAT post!  I also love hearing from the other posters who tell about their personal caroling experiences!  You are all so lucky to feel comfortable with singing!  I’m afraid I cannot hit the right note, tho others in my family could sing!  I love playing carols on the piano, though bifocals have made it so much harder. But, you’ve all given me the resolve:  tomorrow I will get out the sheet music and play carols for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day!  THAT will be my present to anyone who comes to visit!  Thank you for your wonderful stories, and thank you for your loving ways, singing to those in nursing homes, or to neighbors and strangers!   

  • Ellen Dibble

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7pwGZSyY9PA&context=C3e2b773ADOEgsToPDskJ91zGxE2NMyzRB-LzX5Lbi  My favorite Oh Holy Night from this year, with variations.  The one in the green sweater is a niece.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Watch the guy drinking in the background for the first 1.3 minutes.

  • nj

    Christmas in the Trenches. Not caroling, exactly. But it gets to me every time.


    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the link.  This song is a great favorite of mine.

    • Tina

      Thank you so much for this!  

  • KareninNewton

    This show brings back so many memories.  Catholic school when all the classes would gather in the halls of the old two story school and sing as we lit the Advent Wreath-”Oh come Oh come Emmanuel”.I can’t hear this song without getting a tear in my eye. Also singing Polish carols with all the slightly tipsy (ok very tipsy) uncles on Christmas Eve. The only time you saw them all dressed up!  There is something magical about carols…

  • Megan

    How about the song “Dame get up and bake your pies on Christmas Day in the morning”?  It starts out fine and well–”See the ships go sailing by…” but then gets a little weird–”Dame what makes your ducks to die, their wings are cut, they cannot fly”.

  • Rich

    Speaking of “Oh, Holy Night”, Ricky Lee Jones has a stunningly, and unexpectedly beautiful rendition that makes the listener weep! Amazing.

    • Tina

      Thanks!  Will try to find it!

  • Bob Colonna

    In Rhode Island for the past 25 years an intrepid band of carolers have gathered on Christmas Eve to sing outside the Women’s Prison.  The prisoners often join in from the windows. They do this in any weather, excepting absolute blizzards.

    • http://www.voxri.org/ Barbara

      Dear Bob,
      Too late for us to organize with you for this year, but this is definitely a VoX type of thing - would love to help.  What time do you gather on Christmas Eve, and is it at Medium Security in the Pastore Center?
      Barbara T. for Voices of Xmas

  • Suzanne_conlon

    When did secular songs really become popular?  Was it around the 1940s?  I can’t think of any before that time.

  • Anonymous

    Oh please, Tom, mention “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” by Edmund Hamilton Sears, who was the minister of the Unitarian Church in Wayland MA (where you recently spoke!) in the 1800s. We still sing every verse in that same church at Christmastime, and the verse that resonates through the ages is this one: 
    And man, at war with man, hears not The love-song which they bring: O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing.

  • Stew

    You were playing Jack Langstaff earlier, who was my music teacher at the Potomac School in VA in the 60′s before moving to Cambridge and starting The Revels.  He taught us that, not just the old folk songs and carols he taught us, but traditions such as bringing greenery into the home, lighting candles, etc. were originally practiced by paegans celedbrating the Winter Solstic, The days getting longer, rather than Christmas.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Actually my favorite piece for Christmas isn’t a carol, but it’s from the Bach Christmas Oratorio, Jauchzet, Frohlochet.  I’m not sure of that spelling.  Let me find one.  It is transformative for sure. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6MMW-NJmt8

    • Ellen Dibble

      Watch the guy drinking in the background for the first 1.3 minutes.

      • Ellen Dibble

        I tried to delete that reply to myself.  It belongs to another link I posted, earlier.

  • Justin

    We had a party here in Brookline, Massachusetts last night and we had the whole party singing these traditional carols including 4 Ph. Ds, all singing in solidarity. It was such simple fun and good cheer.

  • Tina

    Thank you for this WONDERFUL show!!!  You played such beautiful versions of songs I love so much!  One of the things I have always loved about a number of these songs, even when I was a young child, was the minor key that many of them are written in, because the minor keys seem to add to the poignance of the overall meaning.  And, so many of the songs have a true moral compass that is very clear even to a child, and I think lead you thru life in a good way.  I cannot remember the exact line, but I think there is a line in Good King Wenceslaus that talks about the less fortunate children and how they need to be cared for.  Those lyrics and the overall tonalities of the carols, plus Eleanor Roosevelt being on early TV saying that we needed to help “the starving children of the world”, especially the poor children of India, if you saw the pictures in the background behind her, informed my social politics since I was probably six years old; politics based on beauty, love, and empathy because the songs led in that direction.  Thank you so much, and Very Happy Holidays to Everyone of all faiths and personal beliefs!  Thank you for a wonderful year of thoughtful programming!   

  • Tina

    Oh!  I just watched the two videos that Tom provided and the one that Ellen D. linked us to!  I think there are a few more for me to check out, too.  Thank you for providing them!  What extraordinary voices!!!  To think that without the flash mobs or the concerts or the caroling the gifts these voices represent might just get stuffed away under “ordinary life”!  How fabulous that people are using their talents and sharing them with us!  Just like eating local food and buying from local stores, I wish we would enjoy more local talent rather than worshipping a few famous talents who are often given voices that seem to hit the notes via electronic tricks.  These videos showed people with real talent just brimming with joy at expressing thru it!  Let’s support local talent rather than bowing before the famous few who probably look better than they really sound without enhancement.  

  • http://www.voxri.org/ Barbara Thornton

    Thanks so much for speaking with one of our VoX members, Peter Thornton!  Here’s a couple of photos that show the “Victorian garb”. We do at least half of our gigs each year for benefit causes.  We charge market-rate to private clubs that can afford to pay.  Then at the end of the season, we donate the money we make to charity.
    Peter is the tallest tophatted gentleman in the photos.
    Happy Holidays! Barbara

  • Ashley

    Does anyone know (or can the show post) who sang “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on the show?

  • Anonymous

    The video of the flash mob singing Hallelujah is brilliant.
    Would have loved to had been there.
    Music is truly the essence of our spirit.

  • Marc

    I’ve been searching the internet for that particular Wassailers song and I can only find the lyrics, but not the audio. Can anyone help me find it?

  • Jersey Girl

    Great show. I was listening to it in the car on my way to visit my family for Christmas, but it started to break up as I lost the station, so I listened to it off the computer with my Mom today.  I LOVE the image of Tom Ashbrook “rockin’ out” with his family to Go Tell It On the Mountain,” one of my favorites. Enjoyed reading this wide variety of comments. Merry Christmas, to those who celebrate, Peace on Earth to everyone!

  • Pixarea

    you are understand that its great photos of nude girls on: http://mcngirls.ru

  • Pingback: Magickal Media Blog » Blog Archive » News for Pagans, Friday 12-23-11

  • Christmas Carol

    I too would like to know who sang that snippet we heard of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Does anyone connected with the show ever read these comments?

    • Susan

      Hi – I’m not from the show, but it was unmistakably the voice of John Langstaff, from the Revels album “Christmas Day in the Morning” (see http://www.revels.org)

  • Claudia

    I have a quick question: what is the recording for the version of “I wander as I wonder” that you used in this program? I’ve been trying to find it online, with no success. I checked your “contact us” and it seems that posting the question here is the appropriate route–thank you!

  • Catherine

    This is an awfully late posting, but better late than never, I guess! I listen to a delayed broadcast of On Point that runs from 9 to 11 p.m. On December 23, near the end of the (wonderful and delightful) show about the Christmas carol, Tom and Ian Russell had a brief exchange about enemy soldiers singing Silent Night together in the trenches in WWI and playing football/soccer. Not an hour later, I was listening to BBC Worldservice and heard it’s “Witness” program. The subject? The Christmas truce in WWI! Here’s the link to the moving 10 minute piece:

    Happy New Year everyone!

  • Monsoonmary

    Catherine, thank you for the bbc link!  And thanks, nj, for the McCutcheon YouTube link.
    I heard an interesting addendum to the WWI Christmas Eve story at a concert this summer.  Before singing Christmas In the Trenches, John McCutcheon told the story of meeting Frank Buckles who told him, “It didn’t happen just the one time.”  Wow.  Frank Buckles, for those who might have forgotten, was the last living US WWI veteran who died this past February.

  • dave

    hi, I am The War DVD , the video can’t be shown. Do I have to install any plugin for my browser.

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