When it comes to revolutionary protest songs, what springs to mind? Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit? Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind? Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come? I’m guessing the humble Christmas carol is probably low on your list of contenders, but in mid-17thCentury England, during the English Civil War, the singing of such things as The Holly and the Ivy would have landed you in serious trouble. Oliver Cromwell, the statesman responsible for leading the parliamentary army (and later Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland), was on a mission to cleanse the nation of its most decadent excesses. On the top of the list was Christmas and all its festive trappings.
Since the Middle Ages, Christmas had been celebrated in much the same way as today: 25 December was the high holy day on which the birth of Christ was commemorated, and it kicked off an extended period of merriment, lasting until Twelfth Night on 5 January. Churches held special services; businesses kept shorter hours; people decorated their homes with holly, ivy and mistletoe; acting troupes put on comedic stage plays (prefiguring the modern pantomime); taverns and taphouses were brimming with merrymakers; and families and friends came together to gorge themselves on special food and drink including turkey, mince pies, plum porridge and specially-brewed Christmas ale. And communal singing about the season was all the rage.
Oliver Cromwell was the Lord Protector of England from 1653 until his death in 1658 (Alamy)
The first ‘carols’ had been heard in Europe thousands of years before, the word probably deriving from the French carole, a dance accompanied by singing. These tended to be pagan songs for events such as the Winter Solstice, until the early Christians appropriated them: a Roman bishop in AD 129, for example, decreed that a carol called Angel’s Hymn be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. By the Middle Ages, groups of ‘wassailers’, who went from house to house singing during the Twelve Days of Christmas, had at their disposal many hundreds of English carols featuring nativity themes and festive tropes such as holly and ivy. Even King Henry VIII (1491-1547) wrote a carol called Green Groweth the Holly, whose beautiful manuscript can be seen in the British Library. The phrase ‘Christmas caroll’ is mentioned in an early Latin-English dictionary, and one of the great lyric 17th Century poets, Robert Herrick, wrote a carol text beginning: “What sweeter music can we bring?” The original music by Henry Lawes is sadly lost, but a contemporary setting of the poem by John Rutter is a modern seasonal favourite, proving just how evergreen the tradition of carol-writing is.
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Green Groweth the Holly - written by King Henry VIII
To Cromwell and his fellow Puritans, though, singing and related Christmas festivities were not only abhorrent but sinful. According to historical sources, they viewed the celebration of Christ’s birth on 25 December as a “popish” and wasteful tradition that derived – with no biblical justification – from the Roman Catholic Church (‘Christ’s Mass’), thus threatening their core Christian beliefs. Nowhere, they argued, had God called upon mankind to celebrate Christ’s nativity in such fashion. In 1644, an Act of Parliament effectively banned the festival and in June 1647, the Long Parliament passed an ordinance confirming the abolition of the feast of Christmas.
But the voices and festive spirits of English men, women and children were not to be so easily silenced. For the nearly two decades that the ban on Christmas was in place, semi-clandestine religious services marking Christ’s nativity continued to be held on 25 December, and people continued to sing in secret. Christmas carols essentially went underground – although some of those rebellious types determined to keep carols alive did so more loudly than others. On 25 December 1656, a a member of parliament in the House of Commons made clear his anger at getting little sleep the previous night because of the noise of their neighbours’ “preparations for this foolish day…” Come the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, when legislation between 1642-60 was declared null and void, both the religious and the secular elements of the Twelve Days of Christmas were allowed to be celebrated freely. And not only had the popular Christmas carols of previous eras survived triumphant but interest in them was renewed with passion and exuberance: both the 18th Century and Victorian periods were golden eras in carol-writing, producing many of the treasures that we know and love today – including O Come All Ye Faithful and God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Kings College, Cambridge is recorded by the BBC each year and broadcast throughout the world (Alamy)
So why did people continue to sing carols, against the odds and with such high stakes? After all, many ‘purists’ in the classical world might argue that they are a rather lowly art form – musical kitsch, certainly not ‘real’ music. But this is mere cultural snobbery. Some of the greatest composers in the canon, including Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Holst, have turned their hand to writing Christmas carols (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and In The Bleak Midwinter, respectively.) Carols can be deeply touching and affecting, containing plenty of complex musical ideas even if they lack the scale of an orchestral symphony. Distilled little gems, they share a quality with film soundtracks, being another wonderful way into classical music for people who might otherwise be scared off by the idea they need a degree in musicology before they are ‘allowed’ to listen to classical music.
So why are Christmas carols so powerful? Graham Ross is Director of Music at Clare College, Cambridge, whose outstanding choir is always much in demand during the festive season, and whose superb new album of Christmas music, Lux de Caelo explores both traditional and lesser-known works. He points out that Christmas offers a golden opportunity to reconnect through music. “A Christmas carol brings people together. It's one of the few times in the year that people stop what they're doing, spend time with one another, and sing together to celebrate. Communal singing of well-known carols offers an immediate connection across cultures and languages, putting aside any political backgrounds and bringing together a group of people for sheer enjoyment. Nowadays, there aren't many things that can do that.’
Indeed, for many people around the world, the festive season is often the only time they regularly hear music of a non-pop variety. Today, almost four centuries after they were banned, people will still, inevitably, gather joyfully to sing at this time of the year.