Today is the Winter Solstice and I was looking for something to write about as I look out my window and watch it rain, here in Minnesota. I found a great website that has everything you need to know about Christmas traditions and customs around the world. I may have something to write about every day for the rest of the month!
Winter Solstice is an astronomical phenomenon which marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Winter solstice occurs for the Northern Hemisphere in December and for the Southern Hemisphere in June. I found something else that happens on the Winter Solstice…Christmas Carols.
Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas Carols. They were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced round stone circles (The word carol originally meant to dance to something). The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, usually taking place around the 22nd December. The word Carol actually means dance or a song of praise and joy! Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived.
Early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas and gave people Christian songs to sing instead of pagan ones. In AD 129, a Roman Bishop said that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another famous early Christmas Hymn was written in 760AD, by Comas of Jerusalem, for the Greek Orthodox Church. Soon after this many composers all over Europe started to write ‘Christmas carols’. However, not many people liked them as they were all written and sung in Latin, a language that the normal people couldn’t understand. By the time of the Middles Ages (the 1200s), most people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas altogether.
This was changed by St. Francis of Assisi when, in 1223, he started his Nativity Plays in Italy. The people in the plays sang songs or ‘canticles’ that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and join in! The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
Before carol singing in public became popular, there were sometimes official carol singers called ‘Waits’. These were bands of people led by important local leaders (such as council leaders) who had the only power in the towns and villages to take money from the public (if others did this, they were sometimes charged as beggars!). They were called ‘Waits’ because they only sang on Christmas Eve (This was sometimes known as ‘watchnight’ or ‘waitnight’ because of the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them.), when the Christmas celebrations began.
Also, at this time, many orchestras and choirs were being set up in the cities of England and people wanted Christmas songs to sing, so carols once again became popular. Many new carols, such as ‘Good Kind Wenceslas’, were also written in the Victorian period.
New carols services were created and became popular, as did the custom of singing carols in the streets. Both of these customs are still popular today! One of the most popular types of Carols services are Carols by Candlelight services. At this service, the church is only lit by candlelight and it feels very Christmassy! Carols by Candlelight services are held in countries all over the world.
I will end with a Carol Christmas joke….
What carol is heard in the desert?
O camel ye faithful!