Sunday, 12 December 2010

December - a time for singing and dancing

The word carol or carole is a medieval word of French and Anglo-Norman origin, believed to mean a dance song or a circle dance accompanied by singing. During the winter solstice feast, people would dance around stone circles.  As early as AD 129, Romans were singing special pagan solstice songs around Christmas time. Several songs were used during Christmas services in Rome, and eventually composers all across Europe started to write their own carols.

The 14th century was a golden age for English carols, most of which followed the verse-refrain pattern. The theme often revolved around a saint, the Christ child or the Virgin Mary, at times blending two languages such as English and Latin. Seen as a source of mass entertainment, such songs were rarely sung at church services.

Bands of people known as Waits would sing these songs. Waits were authorized to take money from the public. They were called 'Waits' because they sang on Christmas Eve, known as 'watch-night' or 'wait-night'. 

In the 17th century, the Puritan government's ban of all Christmas festivities resulted in the loss or garbling of many old carols. When the prohibition was lifted, carol singing was revived with vigour and new carols replaced those that had been lost. With increased popularity came new songs and new ways of singing.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is based on an Order drawn up by Edward White Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury but at that time Bishop of Truro, for use on Christmas Eve, 1880. Tradition says that he organized a  festival on Christmas Eve, a temporary wooden shed serving as his cathedral. A key purpose of the service was to keep men out of pubs on Christmas Eve.

The Service was introduced to King's College Chapel, Cambridge in 1918, when the nation was reeling from the  devastation of WWI. It re-told, in words and music, the story of the birth of a young and innocent child into a troubled world almost 2000 years earlier, and brought new and fresh hope to the congregation. It was first broadcast in the UK, in 1928 and is now broadcast to millions of people around the world.

Everyone has his or her favourite carol. Perhaps the most famous of all is Silent Night (Stille Nacht) based on a poem written in 1816 by an Austrian priest called Joseph Mohr. The story tells of how, on Christmas Eve in 1818 in the small alpine village of Oberndorf, the organ at St. Nicholas Church was broken. Joseph Mohr gave his poem to his friend Franz Xavier Gruber and the melody for Silent Night was composed with the lack of organ accompaniment in mind. The music to Silent Night was written for guitar and the simple score was finished in time for Midnight Mass.