Carols contain varied backgrounds - Catholic Courier

Carols contain varied backgrounds

ROCHESTER — Radio stations and Christmas-themed recordings routinely combine songs about the Nativity (“Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful”) with tunes that address Christmas in a nonreligious manner (“We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” “White Christmas”) or simply salute the winter season (“Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland”).

Some listeners might lump all of these under the category of Christmas carols — yet according to Vincent Lenti, that would be off the mark.

“A carol is not necessarily a Christmas song, and not all Christmas songs are carols,” said Lenti, a music historian and longtime piano instructor at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Acknowledging the brain-teasing aspects of this statement, Lenti said that “it is far easier to simply discuss the origin and history of carols rather than trying to define the term.”

Lenti noted that caroling originated as a dance form, serving as an interlude for religious plays, although the carols themselves weren’t necessarily specific to Christmas. Yet the pageants, known as “mystery plays,” often held a Christmas theme thanks to efforts by St. Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century to create a manger scene with music that involved public participation.

As the Middle Ages progressed, the dancing aspects of carols evolved into folk songs centering on Christmas. Lenti said that carol lyrics from this period “have a certain charm and character which is quite unmistakable,” accompanied by vivid imagery. A popular type of carol was the wassail — a toast to good health, having more to do with the 12-day Yule feast than with celebrating the Nativity. “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” is an example of a wassail.

Lenti said that Christmas carols, as well as public celebration of Christmas, were rendered dormant in England by the arrival of 17th-century Puritan rule. And yet, the Reformation also saw an increase of singing in church liturgy. The popularity of Christmas carols re-emerged during the Victorian era and, for the first time, celebratory carols were linked with both religious observances and popular culture; many carols from other European countries were translated into English. Among the well-known carols that originated or were adapted during the 19th century are “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Joy to the World” and “O Holy Night.”

The 20th century saw an outpouring — especially in the United States — of new Christmas music that centers not on Christ’s birth but on reindeer, snow and Santa in such songs as “Sleigh Ride,” “Rudolph” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Lenti emphasized that these are not carols at all, although they often are referred to as such.

“We benefit from the preservation of a wonderful repertoire of traditional carols which enrich our celebration of the Nativity, but we also have lost our ability to see the carol as a specific song form,” Lenti said, adding that music and other acknowledgements of Christmas and Easter have remained popular in society “only because we have so successfully secularized and commercialized them.” Yet he also conceded that Christmas caroling has represented a blend of religious and secular elements throughout history.

“It’s always been that way,” said Lenti, a parishioner of St. Anne in Rochester. “What would be new is if a church congregation starts singing ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Jingle Bells.'”

During an era when the mere mention of Christmas in public places can spark controversy, Lenti said he’s pleased that carols containing explicit lyrics about the Nativity remain popular not only in churches, but also in television commercials and on mainstream radio play lists.

“I don’t think that’s changed a bit. The message (of Christ’s birth) is larger (than efforts to shut down the message). That’s the wonderful thing,” he remarked.

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