I recently heard someone insisting that there was a difference between Christmas carols, which were all about baby Jesus and the angels, the star and the wise men, and Christmas songs, such as Jingle Bells or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
It sounded like a feasible explanation, and the guy put up what seemed like a good argument– mostly due to his confidence and the underlying implication that he knew more about it than anyone else.
(See malapert and ultracrepidarian.)
That’s what triggered me to research the question. I confess it was more out of my desire to possibly prove him wrong than to actually know the answer that I took out my phone and searched Etymoline for ‘carol’. To my delight, he was wrong! It does seem to be a popular belief, but it’s not consistent with the etymology of the word carol.
Carol is a very old word that dates back to about 1300 in both its noun and verb forms.
At this time, the noun meant both a joyful song and a form of dance in a circle or ring. Both of these meanings probably came from the Old French word carole that referred to that kind of circular dance, which was sometimes accompanied by singers. The origins of the word before that are unclear, but it certainly does paint a festive picture.
It wasn’t until about 1500 AD – two centuries later – that the word had also come to refer to a hymn or song of joy sung at Christmas. Thus, the religious connotations of the word came much later than the secular meaning.
The verb form to carol first meant to dance in a ring or circular formation. The sense of the word that meant to sing with joy or celebration had developed by the late 14th century.
The verb carol did not mean to sing Christmas songs, often moving from place to place to do so, until the late 1800s. It does seem, though, that the practice of carolling is believed to be a much older tradition that was outlawed in Britain, along with the celebration of Christmas itself, by the Puritans who governed in the mid-1600s.
So, Christmas songs are called carols because of their festive and joyful nature. Given that a. the word was originally far more specific about the type of dance than the type of songs being sung, other than that they were joyful, and b. Jingle Bells and Rudolph are as festive in their own ways as Hark The Herald Angels Sing or Joy to the World, there is no reason to classify them differently. They’re all Christmas carols, and that’s that.
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