In his Preface to The Oxford Book of Carols, Percy Dearmer, one of the editors of that collection, begins with a description of carols that I simply cannot top: Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular, and modern. With roots in the country dances of 15th and 16th century Europe, the hilarity of hard-working people at play is sometimes quite evident in the carols we still sing, such as God rest you merry, gentlemen…Good Christian friends, rejoice…Deck the halls.
The medieval “miracle” plays of 14th and 15th century England – so-called because they dramatized the miracles and momentous events of Christ’s incarnation and life – were an early source of songs about Christ’s birth written in the vernacular. Performed outside the church by members of the various guilds, livelier dance tunes eventually replaced more serious forms of church-approved music. Carols were born from that great flowering of humanism in the 15th century, as a reaction to the contemplative plainsong of the Church and heavy-handed theological thinking which frowned on joy. Because carols were linked to dance music, they were regarded with some suspicion by church leaders and then abolished by Cromwell in 1647.
Carols remained an underground form of music-making by rural folks during the puritanical 17th and 18th centuries, but singing them was almost extinct by the time Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843. The word “carol” had come to signify Christmas poems and stories without music. It was the discovery in 1852 of a medieval Swedish book, the Piae Cantiones, from which we have several popular carols today, together with a growing appreciation and scientific interest in collecting folk music in the late 19th century, which gave impetus to the revival of carol singing.
Carols are simple and popular, so says Dearmer in his extended preface to what is an invaluable source of Christmas carols, because “the typical carol gives voice to the common emotions of healthy people in language that can be understood and music that can be shared by all.”
But modern? We don’t usually think about carols as an expression of current times, yet anything which lasts for hundreds of years expresses in some way the timeless ideas of its own age. A 19th century American carol, It came upon a midnight clear, found in The Hymnal 1982 at #89, was authored by a Unitarian minister for a population on the brink of civil war. He didn’t write about the birth of Christ, but rather about angels and “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men.” And then, in verse 3:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long,
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing!
Hardly hilarious, but sadly timeless.
It’s not always easy, and never really necessary, to make a clear distinction between hymns and carols, but one broadly stated difference could be that the tune takes precedence in carols, and the text does so in hymns. Or perhaps carols could be defined by their danceability!
Percy Dearmer ends his preface, written in 1928, with yet more quotable words: Perhaps nothing is just now of such importance as to increase the element of joy in religion; people crowd in our churches at the Christmas and Easter Festivals, largely because the hymns for those occasions are full of a sound hilarity.
Sound hilarity. That is something to which we might aspire in our carol singing!