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Durham University the history of Christmas carols
Professor Jeremy Dibble
Professor Jeremy Dibble was an expert on Songs of Praise

Did you know that Christmas carols were not sung in churches until the 19th Century?

That is one of the many interesting facts about Christmas carols shared by expert Professor Jeremy Dibble from Durham University.

He recently appeared as an expert on the Songs of Praise 'Edwardian Christmas' programme on BBC One in December.

Jeremy believes that the carol-singing tradition is getting stronger.

Around the hearth

Prof Dibble said: "It's only quite recently that many of the carols we sing have come from being sung around the home and the hearth and in taverns and when collecting the poor and things like this.

"[Carols] moved from being sung in a more secular environment to being sung in churches and that happened really at the end of the Victorian period; 1870 -1880."

He explained that this shift took place because of a growing pressure from the clergy and musical scholars to bring carol-singing into churches.

Some have people asked me if the Christmas carol is in decline, and I think the answer is definitely not
Professor Jeremy Dibble

There were to two key figures involved in this. The first was Sabine Baring-Gould, a Church of England priest who wrote the preface to the book Carols for use in Church, which was published in 1875.

The other was John Stainer, the organist at St. Paul's Cathedral in the 1870s. In 1887 he convinced the cathedral's chapter to sing a carol on every evening during the eight days of Christmas.

Rich tradition

But the first full-blown carol service wouldn't come until 1880 in Truro, Cornwall.

The service of nine lessons and carol-singing formed the model of the Christmas carol service we know today.

"The Cornish have always had a considerably rich tradition of carols," said Prof Dibble.

But we have our own carol traditions too.

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral's carol services are extremely popular

"There are some definitely from the North East," he added.

"One of the most famous carols that has northern origins is a carol called the Boar's Head, which is more of a secular piece.

"This song was always sung on Christmas Day in the Queen's College in Oxford...it had a lot of Northern gentlemen amongst its students and had strong Northern associations."

Musical emotion

Whilst the carol service may not have come into fruition until the 18th Century, most of the carols we know today date back to at least the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Prof Dibble said: "I think the reason carols are so popular even today, amongst both religious and non-religious people, is because they are very colourful.

"Some are very happy and invigorating... and some are very solemn and have got a kind of darkness... I think that huge range of carols and musical emotion is what makes the whole science of carols so interesting."

He thinks the popularity of Christmas carols and services will continue: "Some have people asked me if the Christmas carol is in decline, and I think the answer is definitely not.

"You only need to go to Durham Cathedral during the three weeks before Christmas, and it's full of schools and organisations - they all want to have a Christmas carol service.

"The Cathedral has to put on two carol services because one isn't enough to accommodate the number of people who want to go, and both carol services are packed."




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