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Christmas carols: the history behind 5 festive favourites

https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/christmas-carols-the-history-behind-5-festive-favourites/

historyextra.com

Christmas carols: the history behind 5 festive favourites
Along with trees, Christmas carols were mostly a Victorian tradition – so why do we still sing Silent Night and Good King Wenceslas? Explore the history of these songs here.

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The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The first verse of the Christmas carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas, evolved as a festive memory game. The list of objects or animals builds with each verse and forfeits are imposed for forgetting anyone.

According to one interpretation, the carol was created in the 16th century. The list of bizarre gifts given by the 'true love' became a secret code for Catholics. The 'true love' became God himself, the 'partridge' Jesus Christ. The 'two turtle doves' are the old and new testaments, 'three French hens' the Trinity, 'four calling birds' are the four Gospels, the 'twelve drummers drumming' the twelve points of the apostles' creed.

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We Wish You a Merry Christmas

This carol reveals customs. Under the Tudor monarchs, wassailing and mumming were still practised, with carollers and players performing from door to door.

It was bad luck not to reward their efforts with food and drink, including the 'figgy pudding,' or Christmas pudding.

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Deck the Halls

A favourite Welsh folk song during the 16th century we know today as Deck the Halls only acquired Christmassy words in the 19th century.

Deck the Halls had words that would not have suited the prim Victorians. In the 1860s, Thomas Oliphant changed the lines to suit the dancing melody and lively 'fa la la' chorus for the celebration of Christmas preparations.

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The Holly and the Ivy

  • This charming carol is based on a 17th century English folk tune, but the symbolism is much older.
  • The festivals of Saturnalia and Yule put great emphasis on evergreens. The Romans would exchange boughs of holly and ivy during the festival, and the Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxon pagans would use evergreens to decorate their homes as symbols of eternal life.
  • Christian carol writers changed the meaning of red holly berry to Jesus's blood and the white holly flower as his shroud.

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Silent Night

Silent Night was a favourite throughout the19th century.

One charming tale tells of mice chewing through pieces of St Nikola's organ, leaving the church without music on Christmas Eve 1818. Schoolmaster Frans Xaver Gruber and priest Joseph Mohr stepped in to save the day by composing a simple carol that could be sung with just guitar accompaniment.

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The Precursor To The Christmas Tree

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Church records from the 15th and 16th centuries show that holly and ivy were bought in the winter. Private houses were also decorated with greenery at this time.

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The Origins of Christmas Trees

In Germany, "Paradise Plays" were performed to celebrate the feast day of Adam and Eve, which was on Christmas Eve. A tree of knowledge was represented by an evergreen fir with apples tied to its branches.

In 1419, a guild in Freiburg put up a tree decorated with apples, wafers, tinsel and gingerbread.

The Oldest Christmas Tree Markets

  • They were in present-day France and sold unadorned Christmas trees during the 17th century.
  • The first decorated indoor tree was recorded in 1605, in Strasbourg, decorated with roses, apples, wafers and other sweets.
  • Demand for Christmas trees grew so high in the 15th century that laws were passed in Strasbourg to prevent people from cutting pine branches.
  • In the 1530s, the region of Alsace was limited to one tree per household.

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Community singing is on the rise again

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The history of carols

  • Carols are thought to be originally pagan songs performed to a circle dance celebrating calendar customs. They gradually became associated with Christian religious festivals, such as Christmas and Easter.
  • Christmas carols are not necessarily about religion. People connect carols with the sense of tradition and community more than a religious association. The main strength of carolling is people coming together.

Caroling: the community feeling

Christmas is one of the few times people feel they can sing together. Christmas songs are one of the few remaining national repertoires.

As you go in from a cold night into a warm pub full of people who want to share the songs, you gain a deep sense of pride and connection, and you're sharing the traditional with past and future generations.

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The U-shaped Curve Of Liking

  • White Christmas by Irving Berlin is the best selling single of all time and is studied on why it is popular for decades, and sold over 50 million copies. It seems to fall into the category of a likeable earworm.
  • Most songs follow a U-shaped curve of liking. New music isn’t liked very much, but as it gets familiar and is heard repetitively (on the radio and in the mall), one tends to like it more.
  • This repetition effect is U-shaped as too much exposure diminishes the fondness towards the song.

When Songs Keep Coming Back To You

  • The reason we like the Christmas songs every year lies in the U-shaped curve of liking being a cycle.
  • A person, after getting fed up from a song, starts to move away from it, but after a span of time, is again exposed to the same song, tends to like it as before (for a while). This is called the ‘Squirrel’ approach to listening.
  • It is also the reason many CDs of old bands which we dumped, sound great when we hear them after a long time.