Christmas Carols – Pagan or Sacred Origins?


Brief look at origin of Christmas Carols & influence of St Francis of Assisi on celebration of Xmas by the masses. Christianity popularised by Franciscan monks in Europe

Christmas carols are associated in many minds with the tradition of Christmas celebrations, from joyful church services to the door to door Christmas carollers, spreading Xmas cheer. Carols are, indeed, intrinsic to the rich tapestry of the modern Christmas and associated by many with the choral Christmas songs, carols and hymns of church choirs.

Christianity in the Middle Ages

Christianity, however, had little meaning to the common people of the Middle Ages. With church services conducted in Latin, there was no idea of the story of Christ or his lowly birth in a stable. In fact, the prevalent view was that Christianity was a sombre faith which lacked popular appeal.

The advent of St Francis of Assisi certainly changed views of Christianity as his instinct for the popular enabled him to link the humanities of Christ to the masses and popularise the celebration of Christmas by the introduction of nativity scenes and christmas carols.

Origins of the Christmas Carol

It seems to be common belief that Christmas Carols, and the tradition of carolling, originated within the depths of pagan worship and celebration, so consequently were banned by the Church. The following is a brief summary of the meaning of the word carol and the history of christmas carolling, which cannot altogether be attributed to pagan origins:

  • According to The Oxford Book of Carols to carol originally meant to dance in a ring.
  • The word carole probably originated from the old French ‘caroler’, which came from the Latin ‘choraula’, from the Greek ‘choraules’, meaning a flute player for chorus dancing and finally derived from the Greek word ‘choros’ which was originally a circling dance.
  • In twelfth century France to carole was to carry out an amorous song and dance heralding the coming of Spring, whilst in twelfth century Italy to carole denoted a ring or song dance.
  • Meanwhile Dante, in fourteenth century Italy, translated carolling into groups of heavenly choirs who would sing and dance, in his Divine Comedy.
  • In the thirteenth century the French word carole passed into the English language. To Chaucer the word seemed synonymous with dancing, “. . .daunceth (dance) with us now, And I, withoute tarying, Wente into the caroling” (The Romaunt of the Rose).
  • St Francis of Assisi and his following of priests, the Grey Friars, managed to incorporate the spirit of Christmas and its celebration into the lives of the common people, by promotion of the Nativity and nativity scenes within Christian worship and simple Christmas Carols written for the masses.
  • By the fifteenth century, the word carol was applied to any Christmas song, sacred or secular, probably due to the fact that the earliest true Christmas Carols were forms of the traditional French caroles and contained more than a little spirit of dance within them.

Christmas for the Masses, St Francis of Assisi – Creates Nativity Scenes and Popular Carols

Prior to the advent of St Francis of Assisi, the celebration of Christmas, and indeed all matters of religion, was a sacred affair and not of much interest to the common people across Europe. The following lists briefly some of the history of St Francis of Assisi and his effect upon Christmas celebrations:

  • The greatest influence on the celebration of Christmas by the masses was St Francis of Assisi.
  • Born in 1182, he had a grasp of the people and common touch which enabled him to fit religion to more popular use.
  • St Francis of Assisi manages to achieve popularity for Christmas and bring humanity to the birth of Christ by re-enacting the scenes of the Nativity.
  • Initially at Greccio in 1223. This life size representation in a forest chapel was complete with manger and stable, ass and oxen.
  • Enacting nativity scenes became an activity that was popularized by the followers of St Francis, the Grey Friars or Franciscans, throughout Europe.
  • St Francis managed to evoke popular appreciation for the humanity of the simple Nativity and, from this type of common religious experience, christmas songs originated originally in the form of lyric poetry.
  • The Franciscan model has sometimes been termed the ‘Cult of the Holy Manger’.
  • The popularity of Christmas festivities spread across Europe with folk tunes and secular songs being adapted to the sacred theme.

Jacopone da Todi, Franciscan Influence on Christmas Carolling

One very important influence on the development of the Christmas carol was the writing of the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi whose lyrical christmas verse became very popular, together with his well known Latin Passion Hymns, such as Stabat Mater Dolorosa or Stabat Mater Speciosa.

Father da Todi also wrote many popular Christmas songs, promoting adoration of the baby Jesus and wonder at the mysteries of Bethlehem, in attempts to bring the magic of the Nativity to the common people. His simple, rustic songs went on to appeal to the peasant masses and become extremely popular.

Religion, Christmas and Christmas Carols Adopted and Popularised Throughout Europe

The simplicity of the Franciscan model of Christianity spread throughout Europe, becoming popular with the masses. The stress upon humanity and the holy, but awe inspiring event of the birth of Christ, enabled the speedy adoption of Christmas Carol lyics of simplicity and beauty throughout Italy, Spain, France, Germany, England and Scotland. With Franciscan priests entering England in 1224, it is unsurprising that the English carolling tradition was well established by the fourteenth century.