Although there’s no definitive history about the origins of Christmas caroling, it’s impossible to imagine the holiday season without carolers. Just like decorating the Christmas tree, busting out an ugly (and most likely itchy) Christmas sweater, and pouring a glass of eggnog, caroling is an iconic tradition that is celebrated around the world. Over the years it has become increasingly uncommon for people to go door-to-door singing Christmas Carols, which is why every year on December 20th we celebrate “Go Caroling Day” to help preserve this classic tradition.
While there’s some disagreement among scholars, many would argue that the first Christmas can be traced back to Rome in the 4th and 5th century with Latin hymns like Veni redemptor gentium by Ambrose serving as one of the earliest examples. These carols purportedly commemorated the nativity, although they didn’t become associated with Christmas until the 13th century when Saint Francis of Assisi began incorporating these joyful and energetic Latin hymns into Christmas services. In 1223, Saint Francis started putting on nativity plays, and the audience was often encouraged to join in on the singing. This tradition rapidly gained in popularity, and eventually spread throughout Europe.
There are also many theories about why caroling groups go door-to-door during the holiday season. Some have speculated that this tradition has roots in feudalistic societies, with poor citizens traveling door-to-door to request a hot meal in exchange for a song. Others speculate that the tradition is much more modern, with Saxon peasants adapting these customs when they went wassailing — a tradition very similar to caroling in which people went door-to-door singing and offering a drink of mulled cider in exchange for gifts.
Caroling, at least as we know it today, likely started in the early 1800’s with the advent of the Victorian Christmas. During this time, families would gather together during the Christmas season and hold celebrations that were filled with music and singing. Eventually, singing carols after the meal became commonplace, and the festivities moved from the comfort of your own home to outside of neighbors’ homes and in town squares. Interestingly, it is believed that the first carol service was actually organized by Edward White Benson, who would later be named the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Watch: One hour of traditional Christmas carols
Most of these beloved carols, like Silent Night, O Holy Night, and Joy to the World, were written in the 18th and 19th century. However, more modern artists like Bing Crosby and David Bowie have earned a special place in our hearts. That said, if you’re trying to get a last-minute group of inexperienced carolers together for the holidays, we have assembled the perfect collection of carols with easy starting pitches and exciting group splits.
Whether you’re gathering with family around the piano or going door-to-door with friends and co-workers, caroling is a special and heartwarming tradition. This year on December 20th, we hope you will celebrate by singing a tune or enthusiastically greeting and carolers that may show up at your front door!
This blog post is part of a series linked to our Music Celebrations Around the World calendar. Download the calendar for access to information about musical celebrations and holidays with strong musical components to share in your music classroom or with your ensemble members! Music + Travel = Encore Tours.