Carols – The First Ever

In England at this time of year, it seems almost impossible to turn on the television or radio, go anywhere without hearing a Christmas carol being played or sung enthusiastically (although not always well). But what is the history of the carol, when was the first carol sung and what did it sound like?

The First Christmas Carol

For Christians the first carol was the one said to be sung by angels to herald the birth of Christ when it was announced to the shepherds, in Luke 2:14, “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Latin for “Glory to God in the highest”).

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:13-14).

However, the etymology word ‘carol’ is a joyful song or dance in a ring, and originates from the Ancient Greek word khoraules (flute player who accompanies the chorus – from Greek khoros “band of dancers or singers).

Thus, although the first song in celebration on Christ can be found in the gospel of Luke, this isn’t the first carol.

Celebrations in Winter

Make a Google search of why we celebrate at this time of year and most will talk about Saturnalia – the Roman celebration of the Winter Solstice and to honour the god, Saturn. Festivities began on December 17th and lasted for seven days. The atmosphere at this time was one of a carnival and a party and resembled the celebrations for Christmas in many ways with gift-giving and banquets. Slaves were served by the masters and the Lord of Misrule reigned – very similar to, if not exactly the same as, the way that Twelfth Night was celebrated in Shakespeare’s day.

Yet even before this time of the Roman Saturnalia, Greece had been honouring their gods with celebrations and festivities at the time of the Winter Solstice.

Festivals for Poseidon, Aphrodite, Demeter and Dionysos who was also honoured at the same time as the wine would be ready to be poured during the winter. This was also seen as a fertility festival where women would be separated from the men for a night to partake in fertility rites.

This continued in the Saturnalia where gifts of fruit or cakes in the form of genitalia were given.

Was there music at this time?

The poet Lucian of Samosata (AD 120-180) has the god Cronos (the Greek Saturn) say in his poem, Saturnalia:

‘During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.’

So, yes, there was – although, perhaps, the exercise of singing naked might be best avoided!

The Return of the Light

Across the world, and across many faiths, there are celebrations at the time of the Winter Solstice and many of those celebrated today under other disguises, may find, that the original reason for the celebration is the return of light.

Soyal, the winter solstice celebration of the Hopi Indians, Shab-e Yalda in Iran and the Scandinavian, St. Lucia’s Day to name just a few.

But why are we so obsessed with the light? Why would we want to celebrate the time of the returning light?

The obvious answer that is given is that things do not grow at this time, so, since the time that humanity has relied on agriculture for survival, the light has been important to us.

However, sunlight is much more important than that to humans.

Evidence suggests that sunlight has a direct affect on our levels of serotonin; serotonin being the chemical within us that transmits impulses between nerve cells, regulates our body processes and contributes to our happiness and wellbeing.

And release of melatonin, which determines our sleep patterns is high during the periods of no sunlight, meaning we may feel lethargic – who wants to get out of bed at 6am mid-winter?

Melatonin also affects our fertility levels; meaning we are more likely to reproduce and, well, feel in the mood, when we have more daylight. So, perhaps, the Greeks and the Romans were on the mark with their festivals of fertility.

Further, we use more energy in the winter as our bodies use more fuel to keep warm.

So, quite possibly, humankind in the Northern Hemisphere have always felt better and happier in the summer months and were very pleased with the returning light.

Did we celebrate? Perhaps not. We have no evidence to suggest at that time that we knew to accurately predict the day that the sunlight would return.

But we do have evidence to pinpoint when we did know.

Stone Circles

Many stone circles have been found in the Northern Hemisphere and these do exactly predict the time of the Winter Solstice, especially, it seems, Stonehenge. So we know that humans have been celebrating the return of the light for, at least, 5000 years. And it is probably more.

Although Goseck circle in Germany appears to be celebrating the Summer Solstice, it does mean that humanity was aware of the sun’s journey and were monitoring it as far back as 6,500 years ago.

But, since this blog is looking into carols, what sort of music would have been played at the time of the celebrations at Stonehenge of Goseck?

The First Carol Ever

Flutes have been found in Germany dating back to 36,000 BC and clay whistles and clay drums are also found in Germany from about six or seven thousand years ago.

The bullroarer, still used by Aborigines today, was used to accompany Ancient Greek dithyrambs – hymns sung and danced to honour Dionysos, the god of wine and fertility. As Dionysos was one of the Greek gods celebrated at the Winter Solstice, it can be said that, possibly a bullroarer, was used in celebration of the return of daylight.

So, human voices chanting, the magical and eerie sound of bullroarer, drums beating and whistling would have been the sounds of the very first carols. Accompanied, of course, with dancing and the magical flute, which is not surprising really, since this is where the carol got its name.

Tracing Back in Time

Perhaps, looking back in time and tracing human history is something that brought on feelings of wishing to trace your own family, especially at this time of year, when we have time to think about family.

But, as it can be seen from the history of the carol, the stories can become twisted with time. Even in our own lifetimes, people have different thoughts about what happened, when it happened and how we arrived at where we are. When you are no longer here, it may not be possible for your family to have an accurate memory of exactly what you had wished.

The best way to write down your wishes for after you are gone is to write your Will.

If you are thinking about writing your Will and would need some help, please do contact us. We will be happy to have a chat with you and contact you again in the New Year with some firmer plans for helping you have your Will drafted.

We can be contacted on: 020 8920 3360, or on:

Alternatively, why not visit our website:

In the meantime, did you think that the history of the carol actually went back so far? Leave us a comment and let us know.

We look forward to hearing from you.

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