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Sing Choirs of Angels

Ian Bradley reflects on the origins and development of Christmas carols.

The sound of carols, whether emanating from a supermarket sound system or from the lips of youthful wassailers going from house to house, is one of the surest signals that Christmas is coming. Yet although it now seems almost unthinkable to celebrate (or survive) the festive season without them, carols originally had nothing to do with Christmas, nor even with Christianity. They were among the many pagan customs taken over by the medieval church which used them initially as much in the celebration of Easter as of Christmas. The subsequent development of the carol as a distinctive genre standing somewhere between the hymn, the folksong and the sacred ballad and having as its subject matter the story and significance of Jesus’s birth serves as an interesting pointer to several major currents in British religious, social and cultural history over the last five hundred years.

Born out of late medieval humanism, carols were suppressed by Puritan zealots after the Reformation, partially reinstated at the Restoration, sung by Dissenters and radicals to the distaste of the Established Church in the eighteenth century, rediscovered and reinvented by Victorian antiquarians and romantics, and re-written in the late twentieth century to fit the demand for social realism and political correctness. As well as reflecting the mood of their times, some of our best loved carols also contain coded comments on contemporary events, including, perhaps, the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and the revolutions across Europe in 1848.

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