Christmas A to Z

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How Pagan Songs Became Christmas Carols

W

e’ve been hearing them since our mothers sang them to us when we were still babes in arms and they taught us their favorites.

But why are they "carols" and not just "Christmas songs"?

The pre-Christian pagan tribes, who have given us many of our Christmas traditions, would sing songs while dancing in a circle at the time of the winter solstice. The idea was to insure that the days would grow longer and the weather warmer. In Old French this activity of circle dancing was called carole, which in turn was derived from the Latin choraula ("dance in a ring").

On the other hand, it may go back to the Greeks – who, as they say, "always had a word for it." Early religious music often had a musician – such as a flute player – backing up the singers. The Greek word for circle dance, choreai, is similar to our pronunciation of carol. Interestingly enough, wealthy Greeks were often sponsors of theatrical productions for the public and paid for everything – the actors, masks (you know, like the ones for comedy and tragedy), costumes… everything except for the flute player. His fee was picked up by the state.

Written by Dianne Weller
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