A Carol, in its simplest definition, is a festive song.
While, these days, we have trouble thinking of “carol” without putting "Christmas” in front of it, originally the term referred to dancing or songs to accompany dancing. However, by 1500, the singing of songs of good cheer on festive occasions – not necessarily Christmas but usually so – was widespread. Many, while ostensibly saluting the festive season, were reminders of legends in a distant past. These ancient songs, some of which have been traced back at least to the 12th century - and many of which are still sung today - are a form of folksong and, like most genuine folk songs, nearly all have certain characteristics (although there will always be exceptions.)
- They are generally strophic, similar to the frottola or ballad – that is they take the form of multiple verses each with the same recurring tune but with different words – although, frequently, there is a recurring phrase or chorus at the end of each verse. (Think “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.” Or “Nowell. Nowell. Nowell. Nowell. Born is the King of Israel!” ...and many others.)
- They are generally simple of melody and are phrased in the vernacular. There will be some Latin phrases (e.g. In Dulce Jubilo – this type of multi language song is described as “macaronic”) but normally both text and music have been designed for the amateur. (The fact that various carols have received attention from some of the greatest composers does not alter the original intention but reinforces the tune’s underlying quality.)
- They are frequently bucolic – most of the older ones hark back to a time of rural domination – when life – lived predominantly in the countryside or village - was ruled by the seasons and the birth of Jesus, three days after the winter solstice, was seen in the context of the old winter festival. Many carols are full of references to the countryside and the season and plants that were far more familiar than they are today. The familiar The Holy and the Ivy for instance, appeared on a broadsheet dated 1710 but waited 200 years to be “collected” by Cecil Sharp from a Gloucestershire folk-singer. Yet this favourite carol has interwoven strands of the Christmas story, the pagan Celtic yuletide, ancient symbolism, all in a catchy dance-rhythmic melody that may be millennia old.
- Above all, the carols that have lasted, like the better folksongs, (and hymns) are singable. They are easy to remember, rarely too high for the male voice nor too low for the female. Even if a good carol has never been heard before, each note seems to follow the others so naturally that, by the beginning of third verse, the most amateur of us are familiar with it.
One genre of carol is the “Wassail” song. Various of these have been collected over the years. They are songs to do with the tradition – now sadly diminished – of a group, often the children of the village but not always, going from door to door begging fruit and cakes and ale and asking God to bless the household that was generous to them. They were always cheerful, loud and sometimes even bawdy.
Collections of Christmas Carols have been published since the early days of printing. In 1521 Wynkyn de Worde published a collection from which one carol, The Boar’s Head Carol is still sung each Christmas Day at Queen’s College, Oxford. Most European countries have published collections , mostly made before and during the busy days of national folksong collecting during the late 1800s and into the 20th century. In America, many indigenous carols have been of the “commercial” sort although one, I Wonder as I Wander, is of a depth rarely encountered and is almost alone in its musing on both the birth and the death of Christ.
In Australia, the composer W. G. James wrote a set of six Christmas carols with the words by John Wheeler appropriate for the country’s hot December climate. They are of the traditional carol type and eminently singable. One can be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wqoFg6Vabo