The story of Christmas caroling is full of unexpected surprises. The practice itself has gone through many changes over the centuries, and our perception of caroling today is based only on very recent history.
We think of Christmas caroling as a wholesome, and even religious, activity. Caroling seems to speak of the beauty, innocence, and magic of the Christmas season.
However, in researching this practice, I have discovered that caroling was not as innocent aswe might think. In fact, the act of caroling was actively combatted by the Church for hundreds of years.
Uncovering the origins of caroling has proven difficult. Some sources give the 14th or 15th centuries as the earliest known date of the practice. I believe the reason for this is because this is the period when caroling began to be adopted by the church, and therefore this is when carols first began to be written down.
Caroling's Naughty Past
In his book, The Book of Christmas Folklore,Tristram P. Coffin says that “For seven centuries a formidable series of denunciations and prohibitions was fired forth by Catholic authorities, warning Everyman to ‘flee wicked and lecherous songs, dancings, and leapings’” (p98).
Apparently early carols could be quite lewd, and they were originally associated with dance as well as song. The caroling dancers often went around town in costume, and it is related to the custom of mumming.
Coffin mentions that this revelry was considered so offensive to the Church that they referred to caroling as “sinful traffic” and issued decrees against it in 1209 A.D. and 1435 A.D.
It must have been a good time, for clerics and priests who found themselves caught up in the fun received a stern scolding.
In one document from 1338 A.D. they are accused of neglecting their clerical duties “while indulging in dances and masques; for prowling the city ‘streetsand lanes’ ‘day and night’; as well as leading a riotous existence” (p99).
The Church viewed these activities as “very remnant of pagan custom” (p99). But, more than that, the street revelry could get out of control. Alcohol was usually flowing during caroling festivities, and drunken singers could get rowdy and even violent.
Church Bans on "Pagan" Caroling
Sandra M. Salla is a contributor to a fantastic resource called Medieval Folklore, an encyclopedia of folkloric terms.
In her entry for “Carols,” Salla says that “between 600 and 1500 C.E. the Church formally banned the dancing of carols on church grounds” and that numerous informal “decrees, sermons, and exempla were written condemning the activity” (Salla, p61).
While some authors attribute caroling to purely Christian origins, and begin the history of caroling with those written down in a Christian context, this is contradicted by the evidence.
We can see that the Church long considered it a pagan practice, as evidenced by the wording in the edicts condemning caroling.
Also, that Salla mentions the edicts against caroling begin in the 6th century is telling. The 6th and 7th centuries were the period of conversion for the Anglo-Saxons in England.
But, those records do not explain why caroling was considered to have pagan connotations.
Jacqueline Simpson, a scholar who specializes in mediaeval English and Scandinavian history, explores this in her wonderful book, European Mythology.
Simpson explains that it can sometimes be difficult to determine which customs actually stem from pagan tradition because Church clerics were quick to condemn almost anything as pagan
She explains that customs involving drunkenness, cross dressing (usually in play acting and carnival type festivities), or elements that expressed sexuality were described as “devilish” even if there was no devil involved (Simpson, p118).
Door to Door Holiday Customs
The Căluşari, members of the all-male dance troupe, were once a secret society which appears to have been openly associated with paganism, and their members were exempt from partaking in mass. This group of dancers had another purpose other than entertainment.
The Christmas Tie to Halloween
This notion has faded away in our modern perception of Christmas, but it lingered on in Halloween.
European folklore is full of references to spiritual activity during Yule-tide. In fact, it was regarded as a spiritually dangerous time in both Celtic and Germanic cultures.
So, it is not that far of a stretch to wonder if the Romanian Căluşari tradition (which lasted well into the 19th century and perhaps later) gives us a glimpse of the earlier mumming and caroling traditions and we may speculate on the long lost spiritual connotations.
Further, just as the Căluşari expect a reward or threaten a curse (literally trick or treat) early caroling traditions are almost always associated with demanding to be rewarded with food and drink or risk some kind of retribution.
Contemporary carolers still sing “Here we go a-wassailing” wherein there is a line requesting “now bring us some figgy pudding” and carolers threaten “we won’t go until we get some.” A survey of medieval carols will demonstrate that the request for food and drink is not unique to this song.
Wassailing, a medieval synonym for caroling, is itself a reference to the alcoholic beverage wassail.
The word derives from the Old English term “waes-heal” meaning “good health,” a greeting or toast (Baker, p83). Wassail is a medieval mulled wine (heated with spices) which was commonly served to carolers.
Another reason to consider that there may be some connection between caroling and trick-or-treating is that caroling was done throughout the year, not simply at Christmas.
What ensues is the carolers sing bawdy songs about the Virgin Mary (no wonder the Church considering caroling sacrilegious!) and hurl insults at the home-owners! The home-owners are then obliged to return the insults to the carolers. Whichever group out-wits the other in verse would be declared the winner.
The Christian Transformation
Eventually, church leaders adopted an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” approach. St. Francis of Assisi was one of the major proponents of replacing the old “riotous carols with ones more appropriate” in Italy, which then spread through Europe (Coffin, pp99-100).
This led to a “great age of carol writing” between the years 1400 to 1650 (Baker, p81).
But, during the same period caroling was actively suppressed by the Puritans (insert joke about Puritans always ruining all the fun here).
A little known fact about the history of witch trials is that caroling came up in trial testimony. Salla says “in witchcraft trials of the sixteenth century and later, accused witches often confessed to caroling” (p62).
Caroling in the Modern Era
Caroling evolved much over the years and seems to have gone through many stages. With the end of one stage came the beginning of another.
The Puritans and their influence faded, and the Victorian Era began. The Victorians had a penchant for romanticizing and idealizing nostalgic customs of the past.
And so, while other aspects of caroling such as its association with dance and other holidays faded away, the Victorians kept it very much alive at Christmas, albeit in a version very tame compared to the original.
It is only in recent years that the popularity of Christmas caroling has become in danger of extinction all together.
Today the custom is mostly seen in shopping malls sung by children or church groups. Will caroling disappear from Western culture all together? Maybe it’s time reintroduce the wassail and liven up the party!