Some of the folks in my neighborhood got together recently and strolled around to homes open for visiting and snacking. We finished an enjoyable evening by stepping outside one home to sing Christmas carols. I had a lot of fun. It has been so long since I have caroled outside. I miss it, and the whole tradition of folks dressed warmly and singing in harmony, door to door, well-known Christmas carols.
I began to wonder how and when the tradition of caroling started. So I did some research and thought I’d share my findings. As is common, there’s not a consensus on how it began but there are some compelling arguments that seem to make perfect sense to me.
Most experts agree that the origin of outdoor caroling in association with the pagan ritual of singing and dancing during the Winter Solstice, which was right around the time we now celebrate Christmas. The definition of “carol” is to dance or sing a song of praise and joy. The Christians later adopted the caroling idea but rewrote songs to have a Christian meaning.
In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi began performances depicting the nativity and eventually the songs were written in common languages, not Latin. This is when carols spread all over Europe. Popularity ebbed and flowed over the following centuries, depending on who was ruling at the time.
As for the origin, one line of thinking is that the first carolers were city officials who walked around and sang, maybe even accepting money. They sang on Christmas Eve, as this followed the history of when the shepherds found out of the Savior’s birth and the angels were singing.
Another notion of the origin of outdoor caroling and walking door to door or singing in the courtyards began with the poor singing in exchange for food or warm drinks. Maybe this is where the old adage “sing for your supper” began.
Still another theory is that singers caroled outside because they weren’t allowed to sing in the churches. So they took to the streets to spread Christmas joy through the sharing of songs in their villages.
To me, it doesn’t really matter. Regardless of its origin, I love the whole concept of caroling. As a teenager, my church youth choir caroled in my hometown. Even the youth of my church in Killeen have come through the neighborhood caroling. And I’m pretty sure they got some hot chocolate along the way.
Many area church choirs have adopted the practice of singing Christmas carols or cantatas but have brought them inside, and invite the whole community to come and enjoy the songs and even dramatic acting, depicting Christmas traditions and celebrations.
I would love to see Christmas caroling outdoors make a comeback. It would give this new generation of children a glimpse of past Christmas traditions and share the enjoyment with the older generations who still remember outdoor caroling.