MANHATTAN, Kan. – Singing Christmas carols around the family piano or caroling at neighbors’ homes are popular activities during the holidays.
“Obviously the bulk of the carols have to do with nativity, so we tend to use them at Christmas time,” said Jean Sloop, a Kansas State University expert on art songs. “But there are carols associated with harvest, Lent, Easter, Palm Sunday and the passing seasons.
“There are ones strictly for the month of May that have names like the Furry Day Carol and the May Day Carol,” she said. “For instance Good King Wenceslas was originally a May carol, but later became a Christmas carol with the addition of the moral text about helping your poor fellow men.”
Sloop says, in the early days of the church, commoners were expected to be bystanders and not participate with the church. At the same time there was a strong folk tradition emerging in Europe.
“Music was something that people turned to because their lives were difficult, and they found delight, as well as comfort and solace in dances and festive occasions,” Sloop said.
“At the same time, people were developing a devout belief, and the idea of not being able to express themselves didn’t seem right, and so the whole aspect of the carols evolved.
References to caroling have been recorded as early as 1300, and in the 14th century people used to have festivals where they would sing in processions, she said.
There are elements of carols that have been around as long as the history of man, Sloop said. “It’s difficult to put your finger on when it all exactly started.”
According to Sloop, in the 1800s two English clergymen decided to revive the carol for use in festival celebrations within the church.
“They changed the lyrics and music of old Latin carols to suit their purposes,” Sloop said. “At the same time they were also writing new carols as well.
“You’ll find a lot of the carols that we know and love were written by various people, and many were even being adapted to tunes from Mozart or Handel,” she said. “So from a scholar’s standpoint, it’s a very mixed bag.”
For people who want to learn more about carols and the history behind them, Sloop recommends The Oxford Book of Carols as a reference guide. She also suggests listening to carols besides the traditional ones this holiday season.
“I’m not suggesting to neglect your favorites, because they are obviously cherished for a reason, but there are so many out there that most people have never heard,” Sloop said.
“I’d recommend checking into recordings by the King’s Singers, the Ambrosian Singers or some of the British boy choirs. They put out marvelous CDs at Christmas time, and you can sort of vary the family fare,” she said.
“Listen not only to the tunes, but to the text because there’s a whole different world out there that you can experience.”
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