A popular urban legend was that they were named after a little girl named Carol Poles who disappeared in 1888 in the Whitechaple district of London. According to the legend, the little girl was reported missing around Christmas and many people went searching for her at night. Due to fears concerning Jack the Ripper, the group would sing Christmas carols upon knocking in order to declare their good intentions.
Traditional carols have a strong tune and consist of a verse and/or chorus for group singing. They are often based on medieval chord patterns, and it is this that gives them their uniquely characteristic musical sound. Some carols like ‘Personent hodie‘ and ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages, and are amongst the oldest musical compositions still regularly sung. Carols suffered a decline in popularity after the Reformation in the countries where Reformation settled, but survived in their rural communities until the revival of interest in Carols in the 19th century. Composers like Arthur Sullivan helped to repopularise the carol, and it is this period that gave rise to such favorites as “Good King Wenceslas” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”
Today carols are regularly sung at religious services. Some compositions have words which are clearly not of a religious theme, but are often still referred to as carols.
Secular songs such as “White Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” are not true Christmas carols, though they are also popular in the period before Christmas, and should therefore be considered to be Christmas songs.
Carols can be sung by individual singers, but are also often sung by larger groups, including professionally trained choirs. Most churches have special services at which carols are sung, generally combined with readings from scripture about the birth of Christ, often this is based on the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. Some of these services also include other music written for Christmas, such as Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” (for choir and harp), or excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah.”
There is also a tradition of performances of serious music relating to Christmas in the period around Christmas, including Handel’s “Messiah,” the “Christmas Oratorio” by J. S. Bach, “Messe de Minuit pour Noël” by Charpentier, and “L’Enfance du Christ” by Berlioz.
In England, and some other countries (i.e. Poland (kolędowanie) and Bulgaria (koledari)), there is a tradition of Christmas carolling (earlier known as wassailing), in which groups of singers travel from house to house, singing carols, for which they are often rewarded with money, mince pies, or a glass of an appropriate drink. Money collected in this way is normally given to charity.
In Australia, where it is the middle of summer at Christmas, there is a tradition of Carols by Candlelight concerts which are held outdoors at night in cities and towns during the weeks leading up to Christmas. In Melbourne, “Carols by Candlelight” is held each Christmas Eve. Performers at the concerts including opera singers and musical theatre performers and popular music singers. People in the audience hold lit candles and join in singing some of the carols in accompaniment with the celebrities.
Christmas carols can also be played on musical instruments, and another tradition is for brass bands, such as the Salvation Army brass bands, to play carols before Christmas.
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