The word “Carol” derives from the Italian ‘Carola’. It seems very probable that originally a carol was a kind of ring or round dance, then the song accompanying the dance. Now a carol denotes a light-hearted song sung in a spirit of joy at Christmas time (and also, occasionally, at Easter). Thus, it is a festive religious song. It appears to have been an ancient practice in the Church to sing carols, and throughout the Middle Ages, the clergy wrote many of them – usually in sequences like the Laetabundus. Most of the carols we know today are not earlier than the 15th c. In 1521 Wynkyn de Worde, a pupil of Caxton, printed the first collection of Christmas carols. Counterparts of the carol elsewhere are the noel in France (dating from the 16th c.), and the Weihnachtslied in Germany. After the Reformation, the practice of composing carols dwindled, though in the 17th c. several poets like Robert Southwell, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, Richard Crashaw, and John Milton wrote poems and songs which belong to the carol genre. Milton’s Nativity hymn is an outstanding example; so is Southwell’s The Burning Babe. Among the well-known carols include The Seven Joys of Mary; I saw Three Ships; God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen; The Virgin Unspotted; Jesus Born in Bethlehem; and The Twelve Days of Christmas. Other kinds of carol have moral and satirical themes. There are also love carols.
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