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“Here We Come A Caroling”

12/15/2017 07:00AM ● Published by Robert Frey

By Anne B. Minvielle

Almost everyone who has rejected the “Bah, Humbug” attitude toward Christmas has probably already heard, played or sung Christmas carols this year.  Tis the season to have the words of “Silent Night” run over and over in one’s head. “Deck the Halls” is sung repeatedly, even if we have never seen a bough of holly, and no one is in doubt as to the sound “The Little Drummer Boy” makes as he plays for the infant Jesus, who, after all, is the reason for the season.  Christmas carols are as much a part of Christmas as the mall Santa, his elves, and, of course, eight tiny reindeer.  Just how old are our favorites, and who was responsible for their success as reminders of what Christmas is all about?

Exploration of numerous books of carols point to an interesting origin of the cherished songs.  Daniel Abraham, a choral director at American University, has studied the origin of caroling. The “Oxford Book of Carols” was first published in 1928, and Professor Bob Thompson of Syracuse University has since shed light on the history of carols as well.

Such authorities agree that the tradition of caroling as we know it today, actually had nothing to do with Christmas. The word “carol” originally meant a dance or song of praise and joy, and they were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago.  They were appropriate during all four seasons of the year.  Although often associated with pagan celebrations, in 129 A.D., a Roman Bishop took a huge step toward change when he declared that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at Christmas service.  Daniel Abraham writes, “Medieval carols were liturgical songs reserved for processionals in the 12th and 13th centuries.”  

There was actually a time in English history, identified with Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, when Christmas celebrations and carols were forbidden. The songs were not lost, however, because people sang them in secret. In Victorian days, Christmas music was collected from old villages, and traditional carols regained their popularity.  An example of a carol written in Victorian days is “Good King Wenceslas.”  Christmas carols remain an integral part of the celebration of the birth of Christ, and many have lyrics that focus solely on the Christ Child.

During one period, the carols sung were in Latin. Ordinary people neither read nor understood the classical language, and carols became less popular.  Their singing once again became well known when St. Francis of Assisi, began staging Nativity Plays in Italy.  The characters told the stories by singing songs, also called canticles.  Though some Latin was still sung, it was more common to have the choruses sung in the vernacular, or language of the people.

The popular tradition of groups going from house to house actually is an ancient one. The carol “Here We Come -A- Wassailing,” sheds light on the custom.   The word wassail, used in England, originally meant, “be well, in good health.” Thus, neighbors wished one another good fortune.  Carolers offered good cheer to homes in hopes of receiving a gift.  For example, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” ending with the verse, “Bring us some figgy pudding” was a request for a pudding made of figs, raisins or plums, common as a Christmas treat.

Considered as one of the most popular holiday songs, “The Little Drummer Boy” continues to delight those mesmerized by the sound effects of gentle drums, as well those who love the story of a humble young boy who sought to give his best to the Infant Jesus.  According to an article by Espie Estrella, updated in 2017, this world famous carol was originally titled “Carol of the Drum.”  Obviously, the repetition of the line that imitates the sound of a drum, served as the inspiration for that title. 

  Many attribute the writing of the carol to Katherine K. Davis, who is said to have been inspired by an old Czech carol.  Davis is thought to have created the song in the 1940s. It was made famous in the 1950s by the Trapp Family Singers. In 1958, the Harry Simeone Chorale produced a recording of the carol, with a few alterations. That version became widely popular, and that was just the beginning.  One article on the history of the song speculates that approximately 113 musicians have recorded the carol, between 1957 and Christmas of 2011.

An amazing fact about “The Little Drummer Boy” is that its productions span genres and beliefs. Stars such as Bing Crosby have made successful recordings, but so have musicians such as Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan.  The lyrics have been well loved throughout the carol’s history, and the onomatopoeic chorus of drums has endeared it to generations. 

A different view of the night of the Savior’s birth can be found in the greatly admired “Silent Night.”  The origin of this carol, however, dates back long before the drummer boy began to play, Carol chronicles report that “Silent Night” was first sung in 1818 in a village church in Austria.  The lyrics were written by the priest Fr. Joseph Mohr in Austria. He brought his poem to his friend Franz Xavier Gruber to compose a melody for a guitar.  Mohr put the guitar arrangement on paper around 1820, and it can be found today in a museum in Salzburg. 

Following the death of Fr. Mohr, the composer became unknown. Gruber wrote to musical authorities to stake his claim to the carol.  At various periods of the 20th century, its origin was attributed to many, from Mozart to Beethoven. It was not until 1994 that an arrangement written by hand by Mohr was authenticated, and the controversy was ended.  Many today still marvel at the humble beginnings of this widely sung carol, which was written by an ordinary priest and the music composed by a virtually unknown musician.  Who would have predicted its present success? The words are now sung in over 300 different languages. It is interesting that the carol was sung in December 1914, during the Christmas Truce of World War I because it was a song that all the soldiers knew. 

From England to Austria to Acadiana, Christmas carols unite believers in the possibility of peace on earth and humble gifts that are usually the best.  Let Christmas 2017 be an opportunity to sing alone these beautiful reminders of the greatest truths ever told, or to join others in good cheer and perhaps a bit of wassail.

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