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carols

carols. The word ‘carol’ probably derives ultimately from the Greek choros via the Italian carola meaning a circle-dance. In England from medieval times ‘carol’ has signified a joyful religious seasonal song, usually sung in the vernacular. In his English Folk Song, Cecil Sharp says that it ‘stands midway between the hymn and the ballad’. Although overwhelmingly associated with the Christmas season, it can reflect any religious theme.

Although today the distinction between carols, hymns, and popular Christmas songs has tended to become blurred, the true carol has certain characteristics. It usually gives indirect praise to God, through picturesque references to people, objects, or events which are tangential to the theme. The traditional west country carol ‘A Merry Christmas’, with its call for ‘figgy-pudding’ is a good example of this—the joy and fellowship engendered by the yearly commemoration of the incarnation being underlined.

Another characteristic of the true carol is that it is less based upon poetic narrative, than upon imagery and symbolism. In ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, another traditional carol, the white blossom and red berry stand for Mary and the sacrifice of Christ.

Some of the most delightful carols date from the 18th and early 19th cents., when bands of village musicians playing stringed and wind instruments formed the usual accompaniment to church choirs. The surviving part-books from country churches (e.g. Puddletown in Dorset) and the recorded performance of the music by singers and instrumentalists such as the Mellstock Band reveal, in such works as ‘Arise and Hail the Joyful Day’ and ‘Hail Happy Morn’, the vitality of this musical tradition, before it was swamped by congregational hymn-singing to organ accompaniment. In recent years the radio and television broadcasting of the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College, Cambridge, has done much to heighten awareness of the rich English Christian heritage of both traditional and modern carols.

Revd Dr John R. Guy

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