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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