Francis of Assisi, who founded the Catholic Church’s Franciscan Order and became a saint after his death, began the Christmas tradition of caroling (singing joyful songs to celebrate the holiday) in the 1200s. Before that time, people had listened to priests sing solemn Christmas hymns during formal church services, but Francis wanted people to be able to express their joy at Christmas by singing simple songs themselves -- wherever they happened to be, such as in their own homes or even while walking around outside.
The Bible records that on the first Christmas, an angel appeared to announce the birth of Jesus Christ and tell people where to find the infant Jesus. Then, it says in Luke 2:13-14: "Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'" Francis hoped that if people sang joyful praise songs to God at Christmas -- just as angels praised God on the first Christmas -- then people would focus their attention on what Francis said was the miraculous meaning of the holiday: God visiting Earth in the flesh to save people from their sins and reconcile them to him.
Francis also wanted to present the Christmas story in a way that ordinary people could best understand. Priests had been singing formal Christmas hymns in church worship services since 129 A.D., when a bishop called for a song called “Angel’s Hymn” to be featured in a Mass in Rome, Italy. However, the Christmas hymns that the priests sung were in the Latin, which wasn’t a commonly spoken language. Francis decided to add religious lyrics to popular tunes of his time, creating the style of song called a Christmas carol. The word “carol” derives from the French word “caroler,” which means “dancing around in a circle.” It refers to the pagan tradition of people dancing around in a circle during the Winter Solstice, expressing their joy and gratitude for being able to enter another year of life. Francis wanted people to express their joy in Christ in a similar, uninhibited style.
Around the same time that Francis set up the first nativity scene to celebrate Christmas in Italy 1223, he decided to write a song called “Psalmus in Nativitate” for people to sing at Christmas. The song, while written in Latin so it could be sung during Mass, featured music that was more similar to popular pagan tunes that to traditional hymns.
“Psalmus in Nativitate” became the first song to be considered a Christmas carol. It proved so popular that it inspired many other people to write Christmas carols, and soon, Christmas caroling became a tradition throughout Italy, Europe, and then throughout the world.
People would usually sing Christmas carols at first during nativity plays staged at live nativity scenes, while walking or dancing through the streets of their towns, or in their homes. Wandering minstrels sang Christmas carols during the Middle Ages as they traveled from community to community. Later, people started singing Christmas carols at civic events, and in church along with formal hymns. They also formed caroling groups to walk from home to home in neighborhoods, singing Christmas carols for people at their doors. People who enjoyed carolers’ performances would often respond by giving them refreshments such as Christmas cookies or hot cider in return.
Most Christmas carols featured lyrics that told the Christmas story, just like Francis’ original carol did. Popular religious carols included "Silent Night" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". But by the 19th century, secular Christmas carols such as "Jingle Bells" and "Deck the Halls" had also become popular.
Christmas caroling continues to be a popular tradition worldwide throughout the month of December (when Christians celebrate Advent and Christmas). Besides live performances, Christmas carols are also now recorded by popular musicians and broadcast to listeners through the radio or Internet.
The next time you hear or sing a Christmas carol, think of the man who started this beloved tradition: Saint Francis of Assisi, who wanted people to express their faith in Christ joyfully.