Dating back to over a thousand years ago, carols were initially sung during all four seasons and had very little to do with Christmas.
However, with the spread of Christianity, they quickly became a simple yet efficient method to spread the stories and teachings of Jesus. Hymns were sung in small town celebrations and the church alike, bringing strangers together through the common ground of religion and belief.
Today, carols play an integral part in every Christmas celebration. Here are some of our favourite ones and the stories behind them.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Charles Wesley, an English hymn writer, penned ‘Hark!’ after listening to the ringing of church bells on Christmas Day, soon after his conversion to Christianity. His version was altered by his own student, George Whitefield, who added the now familiar opening of ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’, along with other minor modifications to the rest of the hymn. While Wesley’s version focused on his emotions after conversion to Christianity, the newer carol speaks about the angels telling the people of Jerusalem to celebrate the birth of Christ – their king and saviour.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Written by Phillips Brooks in 1865, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ reflects his thoughts while journeying to and visiting Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Originally written for children, Brooks’ carol strikes a balance between his personal feelings and preachings – through describing not only the beauty and silence that he observed but also by emphasising on the importance of charity and kindness, especially during Christmas time.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
In keeping with the essence of Christmas carols, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ is an ode to bring peace and love during times of crisis. It was written during the Cuban missile crisis by war veteran Noel Regney, who had experienced the turmoil of tragedy and loss, along with his wife Gloria Shane Baker. It was intended to be a call for the obliteration of the Cold War. Dabbling between a call and response format throughout, this carol goes way beyond just a classical standard. Even today, it holds relevance. The message amplifies through every religion and cultivates a sense of belonging. It urges one to pay attention to the dire world around us.
Originally written in German, ‘Stille Nacht’ was originally written in German, among the sprawling picturesque hills of Austria on one still Christmas Eve. Pastor Joseph Mohr took a detour to his house through a hilltop and was stunned by the peaceful imagery sprawling before him. As the silence of the night enveloped him, his meditative state gave way to him writing a song about angels bringing the news of the birth of the Messiah to the shepherds of the hillside. It was composed by his friend and the organist of their church, Franz Xaver Gruber.
Krampus Is Coming To Town (You Better Watch Out)
Imagine waking up on Christmas morning to the clamour of bells on a giant beast baring horns and fangs at you, when all you expected was the cheerful laughter of jolly old Santa Claus. Exploring alternate ways to celebrate the yuletide, there has been the revival of ancient folklore about Krampus, the adversary of Saint Nicholas. According to legend, Krampus would swat naughty children and haul them to the underworld, his lair, where he would teach them a lesson. Anthony Bourdain’s ‘A Krampus Carol’ is a testament to this resurgence. Pop culture has been the playground for venturing into the dark side of the holiday by hosting Krampus parades and parties. It is widely speculated to be an attempt to come to terms with our sadistic, heathen side. Tuning into the radio, you might not come across songs in praise of Krampus. But you can really get behind a half goat, half-demon on a quest to give the annoying kids what they deserve. So be good, kids.
Today, alongside these classics, carols by the likes of Pentatonix and Ingrid Michaelson have also seen a growth in popularity. While the above hymns were written to pass on the teachings of Jesus, the more recent songs add to the Christmas spirit and hype. Songs like ‘Santa Tell Me’ (by Ariana Grande) and ‘I’ll Be Home’ (by Meghan Trainor) have played a massive role in the popularisation and spread of Christmas in non-Christian communities – merely because their singers are famous worldwide. While they haven’t undermined the religious aspect, these new songs have affected the way many of us see and celebrate Christmas.
“When I find myself in times of trouble,
Mother Mary comes to me,
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”
This famous verse from the Beatles song ‘Let it Be’ is a reminder of characters from religious scriptures transpiring feelings of comfort and well-being to us. This is the spirit that is magnified exponentially while singing and listening to music. Apart from the thrill of celebrating events having religious significance through carols, the joy of singing or listening to them with friends and family is what makes this month memorable and the jolliest time of the year.
– Shuba Murthy and Naintara Singh for MTTN
Image courtesy: Google Images