Nativity is a Latin word that means birth. Nativity scenes came about in 1223 when St. Francis of Assisi took wooden statues and told the common people in the little villages of Italy about the birth of Jesus. He would take each statue, explain who it was and set the whole scene for the people. You see, back in that time, not everybody could read and even if they could read, only the priests had Bibles and the Bibles were only written in Latin. Therefore, people knew very little of the Bible. These nativities become very popular and after a couple of years St. Francis would use his fellow monks instead of using the statues. As time went on, St. Francis started using the common people in the scenes. See my blog on caroling for the rest of the story.
First of all, I know I told you a couple of years ago about where the word carol came from, but it bears repeating. Carol referred to a popular dance that had a certain cadence back in the 14th century. As time went on, the dancers were starting to sing to the different songs. Later, the word “Carol” became more associated with the music than the dance. Examples of songs that were from the original carols are “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” and “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”.
Songs about the birth of Jesus have been around since the first century AD. The Bishop of Rome, or what we call the Pope, encouraged the priests to sing these songs around Christmas day. In fact, you may recognize one of the songs the Roman Bishop asked for personally, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” which means Glory to God in the Highest. The only problem with this was that only the priests were allowed to sing them and they were only sung in Latin, which most of the common people did not understand or get very excited about.
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi, sometimes called the Father of Caroling, would go around to the different towns and villages during Christmas time, and set up dramas about the birth of Jesus and use the common people as the actors. In these plays, he would use simple songs to help teach the Christmas story and he taught the people in the play the songs. After the play was over, the actors would teach the songs to their friends and then they would wander through the neighborhoods knocking on doors and singing the songs they had just learned. People were so excited because they could now sing songs about Jesus their Savior that they traveled from house to house singing about their Lord Jesus Christ.
By the 16th century, they had wandering minstrels who traveled from town to town accompanying themselves with bagpipes, drums, and fiddles, playing and dancing to the different Carols. They would repeat the concert nightly from Christmas Eve to the feast of Epiphany (Jan 6). This shows that Caroling became popular very quickly. The problem with this is the common man did not have a Bible. It was not until the 16th century, when Martin Luther wrote a German language Bible, that the common man could even read the Bible, because up until then the Bible was in Latin and only priests had access to it. Therefore, non-Biblically literate people were writing songs that were not telling the true story of Jesus. The other problem was the church did not like the idea that people were taking common tunes, usually tavern drinking songs, and putting lyrics to them. Because of these reasons, the church worked very hard to stop all caroling. In fact, in England and early America, it was illegal to sing carols, you could be placed in jail or the stocks for singing them.
The one real hold out was Martin Luther, he supported carols and hymns. He also used the idea of taking the drinking songs and changing the words. In fact, he wrote many hymns like this one you might know, “The Church is one Foundation.” He wrote it using an old drinking song. Several carols come from this era from Germany and from the influence of Martin Luther, the most memorable is “Silent Night” (check out my blog from two years ago on “Silent Night”). It was not until 1840 and Queen Victoria, did carols become acceptable. Queen Victoria was the cousin of Prince Albert of Germany, (where all the wonderful carols at Christmas time originated) and Victoria loved the sound of the carols at Christmas time. The fact that Victoria loved the Christmas carols was published in the London newspapers. The people of England responded to this by coming to Windsor Castle and serenading the queen. Just a few years after this, caroling was wide spread in England again. These carolers were more sedate compared to the mid-century carolers. The pictures on Christmas cards with the Victorian carolers are more like what carols and caroling had become.
Caroling has lost its popularity in the last fifty years in large part to our busy lives and recorded music. I would love to encourage your family or your church choir to go do some caroling this year.