Carolling… or Caroling, both are used and both are correct.
Carols have been around since the 11th or 12th century, and singing in a type of caroling style actually goes back to Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced round stone circles. Many of the patterns in carol music have held constant since the Middle Ages: Using the same verse and refrain structures, with an alternation between soloist and choral singing, according to Oxford Music Online’s entry on the subject, with Christmas carols often focusing on the Virgin Mary or the saints of Christmas.
Carols started out as primarily dance (the word carol originally meant to dance to something) and celebratory songs — a definite contrast to highbrow church pieces. Christmas began to have its own music in the fourth century, but those songs were ordained by the church, sung in Latin, and no one much liked them; they were more doctrinal than festive. But Christmas carols as we know them essentially bridged the gap between sacred and popular music.
The man who freed the Christmas carol from this prison of poor taste was St. Francis of Assisi, one of the church’s gentlest but most crucial reformers. In the 13th century, Francis tried to break the Christmas celebration from its tedious husk, mostly by making the birth of Christ into a live theatrical event. He organized nativity pageants featuring real hay, real animals, and, for the first time, real music: Deviating from tradition, he allowed for narrative songs in audiences’ native languages, turning Christmas music into an opportunity for mainstream creativity. Drinking songs were given Yuletide lyrics (greatly to the church’s horror) and disseminated by traveling entertainers. Christmas began to take on a life of its own, beyond the exigencies of the sacred feast.
With the apex of the Industrial Revolution in about the 19th century came the revival of choral music, with more jobs and the formation of the middle class and people increasing their income, more time and a better musical education. It was around this era that the more traditional Christmas songs such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” really took root among choral singers.
As carols became popular, carolling services were created, as did the custom of singing carols in the streets. Both of these customs are still popular today! One of the most popular types of Carols services are Carols by Candlelight services. At this service, the church is only lit by candlelight and it feels very Christmassy! Carols by Candlelight services are held in countries all over the world.
Perhaps the most famous carol service, is the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College in Cambridge, UK. This service takes place on Christmas Eve and is broadcast live on BBC Radio (and all over the world). For many it means Christmas has really started! The Service was first performed in 1918 as a way of the college celebrating the end of the First World War. It is always started with a single choir boy singing a solo of the first verse of the Carol 'Once in Royal David's City'. Sing along to Once in Royal David's City! (on a different site) A service of Nine Lessons and Carols has nine bible readings (or lessons), that tell the Christmas story, with one or two carols between each lesson. Sometimes you get carol services which are a combination of nine lessons and carols and carols by candlelight! So you have nine lessons and carols by candlelight!
Today, popular artists capitalize on releasing Christmas albums because they are swept up in the commercial nature of the season. There are two times in the year when choral musicians make a ton of money – around Christmas and around Easter, since celebration is associated with music and music performance.
Three of the most popular ‘modern day’ carolling songs are White Christmas, Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer [classic]. Both popular and sacred carols and songs mixed together in a Christmas-y medley define the modern day word ‘caroling’.
Since the 1950’s many Rock and Role artists have put their own spin on Christmas classics. One of the most famous versions of Jingle Bells, the Jingle Bell Rock, is a complete new song. And artists from Andy Williams to Elvis Presley and Johnnie Mathis to most recently Rod Steward have recorded their versions of the classics and hymns with their own spin.
And if at all possible every Christmas season should include a trip to a live performance of Handel’s Messiah; the Nutcracker ballet; a Christmas nativity pageant featuring real hay, real animals, and real music; the Mormon Tabernacle Choice or the famous NY Radio City Hall Rockettes, plus a Christmas Eve service that incorporates lots of music.
A new addition to caroling are Christmas Carol flash mobs in malls.
The War on Christmas verses the Spirit of Christmas Series at AskMarion – with comments from Ben Stein