With Christmas just around the corner it’s time to ‘jingle bells’ and ‘deck the halls with holly’. This festive period comes with different trimmings around the world, but there is one tradition that has relevance across many continents: the Christmas Carol. If you are travelling this Christmas period, be sure to brush up your cultural sensitivity and learn some of the traditions of Christmas carols around the world.
The history and origin of Christmas Carols can be traced back thousands of years to pagan songs that were sung at the Winter Solstice in Europe. These songs were sung in a lively and joyful manner and gradually came to be known as carols, meaning songs of praise and joy. While there is some overlap with Christmas Carols around the world, many cultures have their own unique traditions in how and what they sing.
Greece and Cyprus
In Greece and Cyprus children go out on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Epiphany Eve with metal triangles and sing the relevant folk song for the current festival. The general format of these carols is to sing about the feast and offer praise to the women and man of the house, their children and the household. There is usually a request from the children for a treat and a promise to come back the next year for more well-wishing. The oldest known carol, commonly referred to as ‘Byzantine Carol’, is linguistically dated to the beginning of the high middle ages. Internationally known carols such as Silent Night and Jingle Bells are also sung in Greek translation.
In Australia the tradition is to sing carols by candle light during the weeks leading up to Christmas. This tradition was first started in Melbourne and then spread to other cities where similar events are held. The carol-singing events are usually arranged by churches, municipal councils or community groups and are normally held on Christmas Eve or the Sunday or weekend before Christmas Day.
The Polish word for Christmas carol is ‘koleda’ and it comes from the Latin word ‘calendae’ meaning the first day of the month. Carols in Poland date back to the fourteenth and fifteenth century and are mostly anonymous. They started as hymns to be sung during mass at church but they quickly became something that people also sung in other places. The most beloved Polish koleda include “Gdy sie Chrystus rodzi “(When Christ is Born), “Lulajze Jezuniu,” which is a lullaby to Baby Jesus, and “Przybiezeli do Betlejem” (The Shepherds Arrive in Bethlehem).
In the United Kingdom Christmas Carols play a key role in the tradition of Christmas. In cities, towns and villages people of all ages gather to sing Christmas carols such as ‘The Little Town of Bethlehem’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’. People often sing for charities to raise money but you will often find them singing in pubs or in the street at events to celebrate and enjoy the festive period. Churches in the UK often have carol services leading up to Christmas. The most famous carol service in the UK takes place at Kings College Chapel in Cambridge on Christmas Eve. The ‘Christingle service’ has become a much loved and popular service for children and their families. The centre of the service is based around explaining the symbolism of the Christingle, an orange with a candle, a red ribbon and sweets. The orange represents the world whilst the candle is to remind us of Jesus because Christians believe Jesus to be the light of the world. The red ribbon goes all round the ‘world’ and reminds Christians that Jesus died because it represents the blood of Jesus. The celebrations often include the singing of Christmas carols as well as prayers and performances.
Anyone living and working in other cultures should have a high level of cultural sensitivity to these traditions. Knowledge of the local traditions will help you to integrate more effectively into the social culture of your host country and help you to build relationships and fully embrace the festive period.
Enjoy the Christmas carols wherever you are and merry Christmas!