The weather is unseasonably warm, but New Yorkers aren’t fooled – winter has officially arrived and Christmas is just a few days away. At 5 pm on Christmas Eve, Thursday, Dec. 24, anyone looking to celebrate the holidays with song and cheer will find themselves welcome at Holiday Caroling in Washington Square Park.
Surrounded by the warm lights of Lower Manhattan’s luxury real estate, the song leader – accompanied by the Rob Susman Brass Quarter – will take merry revelers from all over New York City on a journey through the season’s most popular and familiar tunes.
All those congregating by the Washington Square Arch will receive songbooks so that they can add their voices to the chorus. Most will already know the songs by heart, but even you don’t, the appearance of classics such as “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men” will have you feeling as jolly as Santa Claus.
Before joining the celebration at the park on Christmas Eve, here’s some history behind caroling that may help you enjoy the night even more:
Where carols came from
Thousands of years ago, Europeans were singing carols not totally unlike those sung today – with one big difference. The Europeans were pagans, and their carols were sung, according to WhyChristmas, to commemorate the Winter Solstice while circling spiritual rings of stones. Marking the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice usually fell on or around Dec. 22.
These celebrations are actually where the word carol comes from. It means a joyful song or dance like those practiced by the pagans.
So, if carols began with the pagans, how did they come to be associated with a Christian holiday? Well, early Christians adopted the solstice festivities and began to write their own religious songs. WhyChristmas described how, in AD 129, a bishop of Rome commanded that a tune by the name of “Angel’s Hymn” be heard at a Christmas service.
It might surprise some, but carols weren’t very popular at the start. Since they were composed and sung in Latin – a language that only priests and church leaders could speak – the everyday faithful just couldn’t understand them. It took until the Middle Ages for carols to catch on.
Carols grow popular
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi began to hold nativity plays. These plays, in which the performers sang the stories in plain speech, were very popular in Italy. The songs, or carols, could be sung by the audience and soon spread to other parts of Europe, including France and Germany.
Only a brief fragment of the earliest true Christmas carol still exist. Written in 1410, it was about Mary and Jesus talking to strangers on their way through Bethlehem. WhyChristmas reported that these foundational carols were designed for entertainment, and were oftentimes sung in people’s homes instead of in church.
Around this time, history records that traveling minstrels would journey around Europe singing Christmas carols that changed based on which country they were in.
It would still be sometime before public caroling really took off – it had to survive Oliver Cromwell’s restrictive Puritanism in the 17th century first – but it did, sure enough. All over Europe, professional musicians were asked to sing Christmas songs. The Victorian period saw a number of famous carols written, including “Good King Wenceslas.”
After orchestras adopted them, caroling in the streets grew increasingly widespread. It was about this time that the kind of holiday celebrations so beloved today, including candlelit services, were born.