You may or may not know this yet, depending on whether you pay attention to our covers, but this issue is all about Christmas carols and the lost lyrics no one remembers. As an additional value-added resource, we decided to do a little history review on the topic.
Researching the history of caroling turned out to be a little more difficult than I anticipated. For one thing, there are quite a few websites devoted to the topic, most of which look like they were made in the mid-'90s, and are sprinkled with random bits of Christmas clip-art of varying quality. This made me question the validity of the information.
I decided to seek help at Concord Community Music School, where I was referred to faculty member Carolyn Parrott. As luck would have it, Carolyn had notes from a presentation on the history of Christmas and Christmas music. She graciously loaned out her notes and a few books, and shared a CD of her favorite Christmas music (more on that later).
From what I read, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of information on the history of caroling, probably because there isn't much to say - according to the book "Christmas in America," "carols originated as pagan round dances, which became popular as 'occasional enterinaments' throughout Europe well before 1020 C.E."
Most religions were against the practice due to the oft-accompanied drunkenness and general debauchery. But, "as early as the thirteenth century and as late as the eighteenth, street hawkers sold carol sheets to passerby at Christmas time." By the sixteenth century, carols were a permanent part of Christmas tradition in Europe.
As for caroling in the United States, well, that's a different story. The Puritans, as you probably already know, were a solemn bunch and didn't much care for the celebrations associated with Christmas. According to Carolyn's excellent notes, the Puritans felt that the Bible said nothing about celebrating Christ's birth, "so when the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620, they brought with them this institutionalized distrust of Christmas." The anti-Christmas movement was propelled mainly by the first New England settlers, who were mainly Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers and, of course, Puritans.
In 1659, a law was passed banning public and private celebration, with a five-shilling fine or whipping as the punishment for revelers. The law was repealed in 1681, but opposition remained.
If you wanted to party at Christmas, you had to go south. Here, the Anglicans ruled the roost, and they weren't opposed to celebrating Christmas. (It's worth noting that Anglican settlers, notably officials, were not welcome in Puritan-run New England - the Massachusetts Bay Colony even denied citizenship to Anglicans. Not just because of Christmas, mind you, but because of the whole English rule thing. It was a sticky situation.)
In 1607, the first settlers at Jamestown managed to observe the holiday while their leader, Captain John Smith, was out bartering for food. Carolyn writes, "the majority of the early settlers in Virginia, Maryland and the Carolinas were Anglicans of English descent. Perhaps because their history in the new world was grounded in hardship, struggle and uncertainty, they maintained a reasonable balance between observing Christmas as a sacred time and as a time of relaxation and rejoicing. Their Christmas celebrations emphasized feasting, drinking, dancing, card playing, horse racing, cock fighting and other games, rather than worship. The old English Christmas customs they brought along with them included Christmas carols, Yule logs, kissing under the mistletoe and decking homes with greenery."
Much to the Puritans' chagrin, settlers to the area kept bringing their own Christmas customs. The Dutch, who settled in New York, brought Sinter Klaas, who would later be known as Santa Claus. Germans, settling in Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia, were known to celebrate Christmas despite the opposition.
The Puritans were eventually outnumbered and gave up on their Scrooge-like behavior, though they continued to abstain from celebrating Christmas, and probably gave non-Puritans shifty looks on the street.
New England as a whole didn't really come around to the whole notion of celebrating Christmas until well into the 19th century. "By the turn of the century," writes Carolyn, "people such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton felt no hesitation about inventing tales about 'Christmas on the Mayflower.' (St. Nicholas Magazine, Dec. 1900) for young readers." In fact, the folks who arrived on the Mayflower were not permitted to celebrate Christmas. It was treated as a normal work day. Of course, this is no fun, which is probably why Stanton opted for the revisionist route.
The popularity of Christmas spread rapidly, even if New England was still a bit slow in its full acceptance - though Alabama recognized Christmas as a legal holiday in 1836, "the same was not done in Boston until 1856, and children there were attending school on Christmas Day until 1870." New Hampshire was the last New England state to recognized Christmas as a legal holiday in 1861 (way to hold out, guys), and Oklahoma, in 1890, "was the last contiguous state or territory" to do the same.
I hope you paid attention, because there will be a quiz on this later. Yeah, just kidding. Like we have time to grade that many quizzes. Geesh.
Anyway, back to the music: Carolyn excerpted sections from Jean Ritchie's autobiography, "Singing Family of the Cumberlands." In it, Ritchie identified where some of the more popular Christmas carols came from.
"The carols that we sing today come from a variety of traditions, mostly European: from England we have 'Good King Wenceslas,' 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel,' 'Good Christian Men Rejoice,' 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen' as well as the wassailing songs associated with the Twelfth Night: 'Here We Come a-Wassailing,' 'Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.' " (Ed. - We found out from Carolyn that "wassailing" is singing and asking for money or food. Fun!)
"From France we have 'Angels We Have Heard on High,' 'O Holy Night,' 'Bring a Torch,' 'Jeannette Isabele,' 'Pat-a-Pan' and 'Adeste Fidelis.' "
"Germany has given us 'Silent Night,' 'O Christmas Tree' and 'Away in the Manger.' "
"Once the celebration Christmas has become more or less established, we find James Pierpont composing both 'Jingle Bells,' first written as a Thanksgiving song, and 'We Three Kings;' 'Up on the Housetop' and 'Joy to the World' are American composed.
And Carolyn's favorite carols? Those would have to be African-American Christmas songs, passed along mainly through the oral tradition. Because of segregation and attitudes toward folk music in general, not much attention was paid to the holiday songs of the South. It wasn't until the 1930s and '40s that these songs were transcribed and available to the public. By this time, European songs were pretty well set as American tradition.
To help spread the Southern Christmas song love, Carolyn gave us a copy of "American Folk Songs for Christmas," a two-disc set of American folk songs sung by the Seeger family. If you're getting sick of hearing the usual Christmas music on the radio, this is a nice departure from the norm while still maintaining that holiday feel. If you're at all like Carolyn and cringe when you hear songs like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," you'll like this album. (It's $24.98 on Amazon.com, or pick up a used copy from an Amazon seller for about $15.)
For even more caroling fun and amusement, turn the page for Cassie's research on lost Christmas lyrics.
As Carolyn pointed out, most people only know the first one to three verses of a song - plus, you can usually read the lyrics out of a book, so you're not committing the whole thing to memory.
Oh, and if you're worried about rampant revisions to carols on the information highway, fear not. Carolyn says hymnals are a good place to check if you want the real deal, but she advises carolers to chill out - it's okay (and fun) to change the words.