The songs are mostly religious, but again, they do not need to be so. They are commonly connected with worship in a church setting and sometimes include dance elements. The word “caroler” is used to describe someone who sings carols. For example: “The caroler came to our door to sing Christmas carols.”
The word “carol” comes from the Old French, “carole” and were at the peak of their popularity, as dance songs, from the 1150s to the 1350s. Later, they were used in processionals sung during festivals and included in mystery plays. The latter, also known as miracle plays, were some of the earliest plays developed in medieval Europe. They focused on representations of Bible stories in churches. Today, traditional Christmas songs are usually no longer considered in the same category of carols.
Carol pronunciation: car-uhl
A carol is a song sung in celebration of a particular holiday, usually Christmas or Easter. These songs are composed with the intention of sharing the message of the season.
Although most carols are associated with the Christian celebration of Christmas, there are also carols for Advent and Easter.
Examples of Carols
O Holy Night
This is one of the best-known Christmas carols of all time. It was originally based on a French-language poem by Placide Cappeau, written in 1843. It describes the birth of Jesus and how it relates to humanity’s sin and goodness. The poem begins with the line:
Minuit, chrétiens! c’est l’heure solennelle
This translates to: “Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour.” The song is used at the beginning of Midnight Mass, the first liturgy of Christmastide, celebrated the night of Christmas Eve in churches around the world. The poem was set to music in 1847, and the English lyrics were composed by John Sullivan Dwight. Here is a quote from that English version:
O Holy Night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Interestingly, this song was composed after a parish priest suggested Cappeau write it to celebrate the renovation of a church organ. Today, the song is considered to be one of the most difficult to sing. This is due to the wide vocal range it requires.
This well-loved Christmas Carol was originally written in German and titled ‘Stille Nacht’ in 1818. The music was written by Franz Xaver Gruber with lyrics by Joseph Mohr. It originated in the town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg in Austria.
Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace
Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia,
Christ the Savior is born!
Christ the Savior is born
In 2011, the song was declared an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO. The version that’s most commonly sung today was translated in 1859 by John Freeman Young, an Episcopal priest. He published a translation of three of the original six verses.
This famed Christmas carol was originally penned as a poem by Christian Rossetti. The lines were written sometime before 1872 and at the behest of the editor of Scribner’s Monthly for the January edition of the publication in 1872. It was eventually to become one of the most loved English Christmas carols. Here are a few lines from the poem:
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen
Snow on snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter
Long, long ago
Angels and Arc Angels
May have traveled there
Cherubim and Seraphim
The poem describes the birth of the Christ child on a “bleak midwinter” day and the worship of those who came to see him.
Read more poems by Christina Rossetti.
Why are Carols Important?
Carols are historically important songs that were originally sung during processions and were then adapted to religious settings. These songs are penned to celebrate the holiday season, including Christmas, Easter, and Advent. Today, Christmas carols are by far the most common and most popular. These are sung in churches, parades, by choirs, and more. It’s common to hear Christmas carols during the entire month of December in public locations.
Some of the most famous Christmas carols are ‘Silent Night,’ ‘In The Bleak Midwinter,’ and ‘O Holy Night.’ Other well-known songs are ‘Joy to the World,’ ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ ‘It Came Upon a Midwinter Clear.’
The best-loved Christmas carol in Great Britain is usually ‘O Holy Night.’ It is one of the most popular Christmas carols in the world.
The best-selling Christmas Carol of all time is ‘White Christmas’ by Bing Crosby. The song has sold around 50 million copies 19worldwide. It was originally written by Irving Berlin.
Related Literary Terms
- Hymn stanza: uses a rhyme scheme of ABCB and alternates between iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.
- Parable: a short fictional story that speaks on a religious attitude or moral belief.
- Homily: a speech delivered by a religious person, usually a priest, in front of a group of people.
- Adage: a short, familiar and memorable saying that strikes as an irrefutable truth to a wide segment of the population.
- Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
- Apologue: a short story, sometimes a fable, that shares a moral lesson. For example, kindness is more important than power, or love triumphs over hate.