Part of a series on the traditions of Christmas
In the previous centuries music came courtesy of the town waits: groups of singers who would go round the town entertaining people with the songs of the day and asking for money. One ancient tradition is wassailing, singing songs to wish people health in the new year. Usually wassailers were welcomed in to drink mulled wine or punch. In earlier times wassailing involved saluting the fruit trees in the middle of winter wishing them good luck and good fruit.
The word carol originally meant a circle dance, though carols have been associated with Christmas for 400 years. Most of the carols we sing these days were part of the revival of Christmas in the middle of the nineteenth century. They were collected into a book in 1871. When the book was published most of the writers were still alive it became the music that defined Christmas for the next hundred years. Many of the Victorian carols like “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “The First Nowell” have words that are very far removed from the Bible’s account of how Jesus was born and owe more to popular sentiment than to the true Christmas story.
The most famous and best-loved Christmas carol is Silent Night, which has a remarkable story of its own. The words were was written in 1816 by a priest called Joseph Mohr and the music was added by his school teacher friend, Franz Gruber, in 1818 for the Christmas service at St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, Austria. Joseph Mohr had asked Franz Gruber to write a tune for the song with a guitar arrangement.
A legend associated with the carol that says, Joseph Mohr wanted the carol to be sung by the children of the village at the midnight Christmas Eve service, as a surprise for their parents. But in the middle of practising, the organ broke down because a mouse had chewed through the bellows. So the children had to learn the carol only accompanied by a guitar. The truth is that there was no children’s choir and the organ wasn’t broken.
At Midnight Mass in 1818, Mohr and Gruber sang the carol with the church choir repeating the last two lines of each verse. The song has now been translated into many languages and is known throughout the world.