Christmas Carols: Facts and Anecdotes

Words by Transcriber Laura B holly-vector

When I was a kid I thought “Christmas Carols” was something to do with my friend’s mum Auntie Carol (not my real auntie). Carolling didn’t really become a thing to me until one run-up to Christmas when I answered the doorbell and three children older than me started singing in my face.  Terrified, I ran for my parents, who gently explained that this was the great tradition of Christmas carolling and that these industrious singers expected festive food and money.  My parents gave them some loose change and I gave them some Jollof rice out of the fridge.


These days I associate Christmas carols with:

  • Christmas pop songs (I usually hear a Cliff Richard version in a shopping centre when Advent has not even started)
  • A specific church service when you all sing Christmas carols (my favourite is In the Bleak Midwinter)
  • The now seemingly antiquated activity (does anyone do this anymore?) of knocking on nearby doors and singing Christmas carols
  • The groups of charity fundraisers who sing Christmas carols in train stations (I would recommend London’s Charing Cross)
  • And Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol

A light history of carol singing

When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, people in Britain were getting pretty into Christmas and Christmas carolling had taken off again.  Carol singing already had a revival after the 16th Century Protestant Reformation when there was a drive to make religious carol singing – previously done by clergy in Latin – a thing for ‘the people’, alongside a conflicting blanket ban of any song not directly authorised by the Bible and therefore deemed to be a Catholic invention. 


Christmas carols didn’t get sung in church services until the 19th Century.  In the early 1800s, Christmas wasn’t hugely celebrated and was barely a business holiday.  But Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert imported a few customs to England and in 1843  (the same year A Christmas Carol was published) Henry Cole commissioned an artist to design a card for Christmas, which showed a group of people enjoying a Christmas feast.  A decade earlier, William Sandys, member of The Percy Society – a now defunct scholarly collective that published limited edition books of rare poems and songs – published Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, where God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, I Saw Three Ships and The First Noel made an appearance. 

Pop Music and Christmas

I think of Christmas carols as religious. I would put Mariah Carey’s Silent Night on the list, but not her All I Want for Christmas is You.  The secularity of carols has been the subject of some discussion.  In 1988, Chris Rea released his self-described ‘car version of a carol’, Driving Home For Christmas, which he wrote years earlier when his wife came to drive him home from Middlesbrough to London in her Mini because it was cheaper than the train, and they got stuck in inevitably heavy traffic.  The original music video features Chris’s head superimposed on a motorway – no snow or holly or anything, pretty un-festive as well as secular, in my opinion. 

Could we call Chris Rea a rock god?!

On Radio 4 in 2009 Chris Rea discusses the modern definition of a carol.  In the discussion, The Bishop of Croydon, Rt Rev Nick Baines questions the realism of Away In A Manger‘s line, ‘Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes’ asking whether Jesus really as a baby, wouldn’t have cried (and whoever thought that clearly didn’t have kids!) On asking groups of children about Christmas, he found that the true message of Christmas had been getting lost in confusing songs and school nativity plays featuring secular characters such as Cinderella.  

The Rev. Dr Ian Bradley, an author of several books on carols notes that carols were originally connected to pagan festivals and fertility rites and only became religious when they were taken up by the Catholic Church.  He adds that there was often sensuous dancing accompanying carols. This was maybe what Shaun Costello was thinking of in 1975 when he created a pornographic rendition of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol called The Passions of Carol (which my friend unwittingly purchased to watch at her partner’s family’s house at Christmas time because she knew her sister-in-law was a Dickens fan).

Why are Christmas songs called carols?

The original Dickens novella is separated into stanzas, or verses, like carols.  One characteristic of a carol is that it has verse and choruses or refrains.  The word ‘carol’ is said to come from the French ‘carole’, a circle dance accompanied by singers, from Italian ‘carola’, a singing dance, or from the Latin ‘corolla’, meaning ring, whilst ‘caroller’ maybe comes from the Latin ‘choraula’, perhaps from Ancient Greek ‘χοραυλής’ ‎(khoraulḗs) meaning someone who plays the flute to accompany a chorus. 


Like all good words, ‘carol’ has been used as a verb – Chaucer describes a female character ‘dance so gracefully, carol and sing so sweetly’, implying that carolling is not just dancing or just singing.  In the Medieval period, a carol was dancing in a ring, holding hands, and singing.

What’s Boney M got to do with carols?

Dancing in a ring and singing isn’t so much of a thing for adults but is still done by kids in playgrounds.  The ones I sang at school were secular and the lyrics were risqué enough to be banned by our headmistress (‘my name is Elvis Presley/girls are sexy’), although nothing quite as explicit as The Passions of Carol.  She also banned ‘while shepherds washed their socks by night, all watching ITV, the angel of the Lord came down and switched to BBC’, which we all thought was a light-hearted alternative to the original, but was probably us repeating early TV licensing propaganda. 

Brown Girl in the Ring, the children’s game with the same name as Bony M.’s 1978 version, is a good example of ring singing and dancing. Incidentally it was this song that mountaineer Joe Simpson had in his head during a near-death experience climbing the west face of Siula Grande in Peru (‘Bloody hell, I’m going to die to Boney M.’). Boney M.’s chirpy Christmas single Mary’s Boy Child / Oh My Lord from the same year, complete with fashion forward music video (rarely have white sparkling trousers been tighter or worked harder) and a festive key change, is, I think, a carol anyone would be happy to die on a mountain to.


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