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THE ORIGINS OF VICTORIAN CAROLING

 
Many of the Christmas carols that we sing today originated during Victorian times. The Victorians loved music and, as part of their holiday celebrations, began to revive old medieval English carols. They also composed new ones, both secular and religious, most of which are English. Parlor singing also became a popular form of home entertainment since the Victorians had no radio, television, or Internet In order for everyone to participate, regardless of their singing ability, they featured easily sung music that celebrated the cheer of Christmas. As musicians assembled old nativity carols into collections such as "A Good Christmas Box" in 1847 and "Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern" in 1871, Handel’s Messiah and strains of "O Holy Night" filled the churches.

It became common for middle and upper middle class Victorians to have a piano or organ in their parlors. Those that couldn’t afford this luxury purchased a roller or "cob" organ, a device which had a roller that looked like a cob of corn that played music when turned, for $3.95 from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. After the Christmas feast, the family would gather around to sing Christmas carols like "O Christmas Tree" and "Silent Night" from Germany.

The tradition of caroling from door to door originated with the "waits," an ancient English custom of going from house to house and singing in exchange for food. Singing carols outdoors on the front porches of houses became popular in both England and the United States as early as the late 19th Century and continued into the 20th. The English carol "Here We Come a-Wassailing" best describes the tradition of the waits.

Originally carols were part of secular holiday celebrations–something to sing at home. But with the substitution of new words to old carols and the composition of new religious songs about Christmas, people began to sing carols as part of church services.

The Victorians wrote or revised some of today’s favorite Christmas carols. Such all-time favorites as "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Good Christian Men Rejoice," "O Little Town of Bethlehem, "Away in a Manger," and "We Three Kings" reflected the religious side of Christmas while cheerful songs like "Jingle Bells" celebrated the joyous side of the holiday season.

 

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