Final Word

“Silent Night” to avoid a silent night

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Probably the best known Christmas carol among the thousands that have been created over the ages, “Silent Night”, was created to avoid a silent night.

And interestingly, as guitars are increasingly replacing organs in churches as the preferred instrument to accompany singing, it was originally specifically written for the guitar.

The priest of the small town Oberndorf in Austria, Joseph Mohr, was informed on the day before Christmas 1818 that the church organ was broken and could not be repaired in time for the service that evening.

Saddened by the thought of a Christmas Eve service without song and music he sat down to try and create a song that could be sung by the church choir to guitar accompaniment. He managed to pen three stanzas and that night “Stille Nacht” was sung for the first time by the Oberndorf congregation – a worldwide tradition was born.

But the creation of “Silent Night” to avoid a silent night on a joyous occasion, is not the only irony associated with the rich history of Christmas carols.

The origin of carols

The word carole, which arrived in English during the early 14th century, started off as the Greek word khoraules, for a flute player who accompanies the khoros or choral dance. It migrated via first Latin and then French to Middle English.

Originally the term was indeed associated with dancing in a circle/ring or ‘ring dancing’. It became ‘carol’ somewhere in the 15th century.

While the term ‘carol’ is today used almost exclusively in reference to songs associated with Christmas and sometimes Easter, these songs and dances did not originate in religion. Even as a religious tradition – starting in the 15th century – they have had a tough ride through history.

They started off as pagan songs sung while dancing around stone circles during festivals at the change between seasons, especially during the Winter Solstice around the 22nd December on the shortest day of the year.

Christian takeover

Early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations and made it their own to celebrate the birth of Christ. The first known Christmas song, called the “Angel’s Hymn”, came in the year 129 from a bishop in Rome who had it sung at a Christmas service.

Many more Christmas carols would follow in the next few centuries, but written in Latin and hard to learn or understand by the common people, few of them gained popularity and even general celebration of Christmas faltered.

It all changed in the 13th century when St. Francis of Assisi in Italy started putting on nativity plays with songs or ‘canticles’ telling the stories, mostly in a language that people understood. Often they would join in the singing. Over time this new tradition spread across Europe.

By the early 15th century, not only had carol services during Christmas time become very popular, but the carols were sung in homes. Travelling singers or minstrel groups were also formed, moving from town to town, entertaining people.

Carols under assault

Then came the Protestant Reformation. In England Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in 1647, and banned Christmas celebrations and the singing of carols. Cromwell’s belief that Christmas should be a solemn day prevailed until 1660.

But despite being banned from churches during the Middle Ages, and considered inappropriate, many carols survived – often sung in secret in homes. The ban from churches also led to the development of the tradition of carol singers going from door to door.

The great revival of Christmas carols came during the Victorian era (1837-1901) when William Sandys and Davis Gilbert published a collection of Christmas songs, old and new, from various villages in England.

New carol services, like carols by candlelight, were created and became popular, as did the custom of singing carols in the streets and, in more recent times, playing recordings in big shops and shopping malls.

A new genre

As can be expected in our highly commercialised social environment, not all the popular songs are associated with the religious context of Christmas.

Many of the songs of the present season are simply classified as Christmas ‘songs’. Probably rivalling “Silent Night” in terms of its strength of association with this time of the year is the song “Jingle Bells”.

Finally, for those interested in that kind of thing, “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin became the biggest-selling Christmas song of all time, with approximately 350 million copies both on record and on sheet music sold.

by Piet Coetzer

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