Why Do We Have Christmas Carols?

Why do we have Christmas carols? From my position as a music therapist, it’s easy to say that we groups of people use music for celebrations, to bring us together as a community and to focus our attention on a particular purpose. That’s why we hear the National Anthem at football games, Irish music while drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, and “Taps” at a Memorial Day ceremony. The music signals a communal experience. The Christmas music phenomenon is much more pervasive, though, and a glance at the history of Christmas carols gives us an idea of why this is so. I find this kind of stuff interesting on its own, but it can also be great information to integrate into caregiving routines. More of that later, but first a little history:

A brief history

In a strict, musicological sense, the term “carol” should probably be used only for songs of a particular style and form that originated in the 14th century and thrived in the Victorian era. Since we just want to know where all the fodder for Target ads comes from, though, we’ll talk more broadly about music commonly set aside for celebration of the Christmas season. December 25 was pinned down as the day for celebrating the birth of Christ by the fourth century, and since they didn’t like folks adapting existing pagan melodies for Christmas, church leaders wrote their own Christmas songs. These were in Latin, not the language of the people, and they were not popular. You’ve probably never heard any of them. (I haven’t.) Along about the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi brought some life back to the Christmas celebration, organizing pageants with real people and animals to bring the Christmas story to life, and putting Yuletide lyrics to popular drinking songs, which were then disseminated by traveling musicians. This was a brief revival, though, because Christmas music died again in the English-speaking world with the Puritans. For a time, in fact, people in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were given fines if caught celebrating Christmas. That’s hard to believe, given the way we celebrate the season some 350 years later! The holiday and its music came back into popularity in the 19th century and the reign of Queen Victoria. That’s when the particular song form known as a “carol” came about. In fact, many of the carols published and popularized in those days are still sung today, including “The First Noel” and “Hark The Herald Angels Sing.” By the time Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, many of the songs and traditions that we still have today were already cemented in public consciousness. The holiday became less about commemoration of a significant religious event and more about communal celebration with a particular set of traditions. The prominence of the non-religious side of Christmas has continued for our American culture today, and this is evident in the music we hear on those round-the-clock holiday stations. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is a good example of this: the words are entirely about the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, gift giving, and (most importantly) being with that special someone. The words here aren’t meant to communicate theological insight and historical narrative about the birth of Christ. They’re meant to convey a particular celebratory, togetherness kind of feeling. That’s the Christmas carol of the 21st century. What’s more, songs that aren’t even supposed to be about Christmas somehow are only heard and sung in December. “Jingle Bells” was supposed to be a Thanksgiving song. “Frosty the Snowman?” “Winter Wonderland?” “Let It Snow?” None of these have a thing to do with Christmas, but it would still feel strange to sing them in January. What these songs do, though, is contribute to the overall festivity of the Christmas season (and maybe encourage some more Christmas shopping.) Thus, they become Christmas songs.

What does this mean for eldercare professionals?

So now that you’ve got a brief history of Christmas carols, what specifically can you do with this kind of information? Here are a few ideas: 1. Start a conversation by talking about this story of how Christmas carols developed. It’s an interesting story to share, about a set of music with which we all have some familiarity. 2. Create a cognitive/memory challenge. Ask the seniors you care for to come up with two lists: Christmas carols that are “old” and those that are “new.” This may or may not be easy! Another challenge could be thinking of “Christmas” songs that aren’t really about Christmas. 3. Build group activities and discussions around those non-Christmas holiday songs, with the express purpose of including those who don’t celebrate the Christian holiday. Better yet – consider collecting these songs now for a Snow Day Playlist to use in February! 4. Dig deeper into the history of a few Christmas carols. Songs like “White Christmas” and “Good King Wenceslas” are definitely of product of the time in which they were written, and they have interesting histories all on their own. 5. Write a new carol. Using the template of Christmas songs past, help your seniors write their own songs, either about the Christian Christmas story or about the traditions that are important to them and their families. Who knows? Maybe it will be the next big Christmas hit, and you’ll all make a million dollars. Will you try one of these ideas this year? If so, let us know how it goes by leaving a comment below!]]>


  1. Stephanie Bolton on December 19, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    Thanks for feeding my inner music geek with this post! 🙂 It’s so interesting to see how Christmas music has changed over the centuries. Love the history, and your ideas for how to use the info with elders/caregivers is terrific (as always)!

  2. Vicki Gross on December 20, 2012 at 3:07 am

    This really sums up the Christmas carol “hype.” I love this well written and researched post. Thank you for sharing your Christmas carol suggestions for music therapy in elder care. Although I love the Christmas carols always sung during this time of year, it is good to know the history which supports the commercialism today!

Leave a Comment