Carol singing: When did the Christmas tradition begin?

The history of carol singing may go back as far as the medieval era, and has appeared in literature for many years, but it was during Victorian times it became really popular

1957:  Three young carol singers give their rendering of a Christmas song in the falling snow.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The tradition of going from house to house carol singing has an uncertain heritage, but may have its origins in medieval times, when watches – which included musicians – patrolled England’s towns to keep order. Lincoln, for example, had a group of waits until around 1850.

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In his short story The Seven Poor Travellers (1854), Charles Dickens describes a group of musicians performing in a town one winter’s evening: ‘As I passed along the High Street, I heard the Waits at a distance, and struck off to find them. They were playing near one of the old gates of the City, at the corner of a wonderfully quaint row of red-brick tenements.’

However carol singing really came into its own in Victorian times, with the advent of the Victorian Christmas.  This was when Christmas became a holiday families could enjoy, and celebrate, and music in the home was a big of the celebrations. It would become tradition to sing carols after the Christmas meal.

The first carol service is believed to have been held at Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, in 1880. It was organised by Edward White Benson, the First Bishop of Truro, who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury.

A separate tradition of ‘wassailing’ also existed as far back as Anglo-Saxon times. The word ‘wassail’ probably comes from the Old Norse ‘ves heill’ meaning ‘be well and in good health’ and was a toast. But by the Victorian period wassailers were carolling groups who went round the town and would be rewarded with a hot, spiced (often cider-based) drink, known as ‘wassail’.

Today, carol singers can more usually be found in town squares, shopping centres and visiting hospitals and old people’s homes – and rather than waiting to be rewarded with a cup of wassail, modern carollers are more likely to ask for donations to charity. That said, a glass of mulled wine is often very welcome!

You can find lyrics to many of your favourite Christmas carols here

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