Carols nowadays often refer to joyous songs that are sung and heard during Christmas season. The real history of the carols goes back to the Middle Ages, when they were sung at various times throughout the year.
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A carol was a term for a song about anything, with short stanzas typically sung by a soloist alternated with two lines (called ‘burden’) sung by the group. Carols can both be sung and danced as well. This is why a many of the older carols have a lively tempo and rhythm. Some carol singers hold still while singing the stanzas, with joined hands (sometimes in a chain, but more usually in a ring moving clockwise) as they sang the burden.
Carols were sang in every European country beginning in the 14th century. Some carols are about the birth of Jesus – both joyous and lullaby-like. There are carols about Joseph and Mary, the Wise Men, the shepherds, and the manger animals. A lot of the songs, such as the “Coventry Carol,” were composed for nativity plays.
During the 16th century, the word “carol” became more and more identified with the Christmas season and lesser with song and dance stanza-and-burden form. The Christmas song tradition included tongue-twisting carols, such as “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which were usually sung at parties. Some carols actually originated from drinking songs such as the “Wassail Song” which were used to celebrate both Christmas and New Year’s Day. Waes hael is an old drinking toast that means “Good health to you!” In England, the carols that the children sang as the went around singing for sweets or coins came to be called as ‘waits,’ based on the custom started by the waits (watchmen) who patrolled the cities in the evenings.
Many countries worldwide have contributed to the repertoire of Christmas musical traditions. The French call their Christmas songs noels, but in England the word “noel” can be interchanged with “carol,” although noels are not really related to medieval carols which came more than a century earlier. The Americans gave the world “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and the negro-spiritual carol “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” One of the best loved of all carols, the Stille Nacht (Silent Night) came from Austria. These carols are remote from the Christmas songs of the Middle Ages.