A Meditation for the Advent and Christmas seasons
By Tim Dowley,
A Global History
Paperback: SPCK, 2018
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Carols fall into that category of things that people either love or loathe. Many warm to their traditional imagery and annual memories of Christmases past; others do their utmost to avoid them, associating carols with sentimental words and mawkish music.
Carols are normally narrative, contemplative or celebratory in content, often with a simple, straightforward sentiment and in strophic form. Most of the surviving medieval carols were written for the professional cathedral singers of Europe. Among the oldest is ‘Puer natus in Bethlehem’ (‘A Boy is Born in Bethlehem’), dating from the thirteenth century. Though the majority of carols were for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, others were for Holy Innocents’ Day, Epiphany and Twelfth Night – for instance, the ‘numeral’ carol ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which appears in England from the eighteenth century onwards. The carol ‘The Seven Joys of Mary’, which appears with many variants in the UK and the USA, grew out of pre-Reformation devotion to the Virgin and has survived for centuries in vernacular devotional verses in the folk tradition. The carol ‘I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In’, for which the earliest known printed text dates from 1666, possibly derives from European folk memory of the supposed journeyings of relics of the Magi, the ‘Three Kings of Cologne’.