Over the centuries Christmas has inspired countless songs. Which of the many pieces of vocal music written for Christmas qualify as true Christmas carols? Most writers assume Christmas carols to be those songs about Christmas whose tune and lyrics are widely known and whose popularity is maintained primarily through folk traditions rather than commercial promotions. By this definition, the fine Christmas works written by classical composers are not true Christmas carols, since they are musically quite complex and known to relatively small numbers of people. The fact that people sing carols for enjoyment and entertainment also figures in their definition.
This criterion might exclude a number of lesser-known church hymns, since people usually sing them only during church services. In addition, most carols take as their subject matter the legends, customs, or religious celebration of Christmas. Therefore, some people would not include popular songs such as “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” or even the hit song “White Christmas” in a collection of carols, since these songs achieved popularity through commercial mechanisms and do not address traditional Christmas themes or religious celebration. Others might quarrel with these criteria, arguing that the subject matter of these songs and the manner in which they achieved popularity simply reflect the commercial interests and cultural outlook of the twentieth century.
Why are these traditional Christmas songs called “carols,” anyway? Some scholars trace the English word “carol” all the way back to the ancient Greek word coros. In ancient Greek drama the coros, or “chorus,” appeared from time to time during the play singing commentaries on the plot and often dancing as well. By the late Middle Ages, the word “carol” had come to mean singing and dancing in a circle, as children do when singing “Ring Around the Rosy.” In the Middle Ages people caroled on many different occasions. By the sixteenth century, however, this musical genre had acquired a special association with the Christmas season, while its earlier association with dance was fading away. Already a large number of Christmas carols circulated throughout Europe. A number of these, such as the English “I Saw Three Ships” and the German “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” are still sung today.