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In medieval times, the word ‘carol’ referred to a round dance with musical accompaniment (‘carole’ in French). It later developed into a song form of verses and a refrain.
Not all the original texts had Christmassy words but many were associated with Mary, Advent and Christmas. The term has since come to be applied to all Christmas songs, whether or not in carol form.
Christmas Carols were introduced to formal church services by St. Francis of Assisi.
‘One of the oldest printed English Christmas carols is the Boar's Head Carol, sung as the traditional dish is carried in on Christmas Day at Queen's College, Oxford; it was printed in 1521.’ (Oxford Dictionary of Music)
Christmas carol fans will be pleased that they were not alive between 1649 and 1660, when Christmas carols were banned by Oliver Cromwell. He thought that worship should be solemn, and so Christmas was only celebrated in England by a simple service at that time.
'Silent Night' was written in 1818 by Austrian priest Joseph Mohr. He was told the day before Christmas Eve that the church organ was broken and would not be repaired in time for the Christmas Eve service so he wrote a carol that could be sung by choir and guitar. The result - 'Stille Nacht'.
English church musician W.H. Cummings adapted a theme from Mendelssohn’s choral work Festgesang for the Christmas carol Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.
In a carol symphony, four movements are held together by one main carol and other carols are used for secondary themes. The first composer to write a carol symphony was Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-47), who was born in South Africa but lived in England for most of his life. His carol symphony begins with 'Adeste Fideles' followed by 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen', the 'Coventry Carol' and a touch of 'The First Nowell'. Finally, the symphony finishes with 'Here We Come A Wassailing' and 'Adeste Fideles'.