Christmas Carols History, Middle Ages, Characteristics, Structure

Alexander Pearson

The Christmas carols They are a poetic-musical form popularized between 1,500 and 1,800 in Europe. They were the domain of the people from the beginning and little by little they began to form an important part of Latin cultures, becoming traditional in Spain, Portugal and South America..

They were profane songs with a chorus, whose theme was varied. They dealt with love, misadventures, heroic deeds of some knights and everyday situations. They were accompanied by lutes and tended to be harmonized to various voices by the composers.

Sing of Christmas carols. Source: Pixabay.

The carol itself comes from a much older musical form, developed during the Middle Ages, called “cantiga” (popularized by Alfonso X the Wise in the 13th century). It was a model of song widely used by the troubadours of the time in their presentations in the streets and squares..

They were also common among minstrels to liven up the pauses between the chants of deed, or in the daily routine, a little late in the Spanish Golden Age (between the 15th and 17th centuries). Thanks to their catchy choruses, it was normal to hear people sing Christmas carols while they went about their daily tasks..

The etymological origin of the word "Christmas carol" is interesting, it comes from the word "villain" (the one who lives in the villas). That is, the carol was the song of those who inhabited the villas.

Among the most notable composers of Christmas carols are: Pedro de Escobar, Juan de Enzina, Francisco Guerrero, Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla and Gaspar Fernandes.

At present, and as has happened with many other poetic and musical forms, the term "Christmas carol" means "Christmas song".

Article index

  • 1 Origin and History
    • 1.1 Christmas carols in the 10th century
    • 1.2 The carol and Christmas
    • 1.3 Profane songs made Christian Christmas carols
    • 1.4 Christmas carols in England
  • 2 Christmas carols in the Middle Ages
    • 2.1 Arrival of the Arabs
    • 2.2 The carol of the ambassador's wife
  • 3 Features
    • 3.1 Of profane origin
    • 3.2 Metric
    • 3.3 Application of polyphony
    • 3.4 Topics
    • 3.5 Poetic symbols
  • 4 Structure
  • 5 Topics of interest
  • 6 References

Origin and History

The first musical compositions that bore the name "Christmas carols" date from approximately 1470. It was during the Renaissance when this musical form explicitly emerged, as a product of the evolution of the “cantiga”, as mentioned previously..

Songbook of all the works of Juan de Enzina. Source:

Christmas carols in the 10th century

However, there are much older precedents that speak of the presence of Christmas carols in the 10th century. Such is the case of the compilations made by Lucas de Tuy in his book Chronicon Mundi, in 1236, where he speaks of a kind of "protovillancicos" in the 900s d. C., and others witnessed close to his time, in 1200 d. C.

"In Catalañazor / lost Almanzor / atamor" is one of the fragments present in Tuy's book. As can be seen in this snippet, we are talking about a very particular stanza typical of Spanish lyric, with very traditional airs. In this case it has three verses of minor art of 6, 5 and 4 syllables, respectively, rhyme aaa.

These versifications have a clear Mozarabic influence. This is why they are related, by the size of their stanzas and the variability of their verses and rhymes, with the jarchas or auctions of the moaxajas. Samuel Miklos Stern was one of the researchers who managed to strengthen this association through his studies.

In addition to what has been commented in the previous paragraphs, the metric of the verses is not fixed, it is very variable, and in this case the rhyme is consonant, however it also accepts assonances and there are palpable cases where it can be appreciated.

When Christmas carols began to become more fully established -between the 16th and 18th centuries- there was a marked inclination on the part of composers to write them in octosyllabic and hexasyllable verses, in triplets and with abb rhymes..

It was normal to also find stanzas of broken foot, that is, with two eight-syllable verses topped with a tetrasyllable. The Christmas carols themselves presented great flexibility at the time of their composition, and their poetic depth was determined by the lyrical handling of their authors..

Carol and Christmas

The fact that the Christmas carol took on the religious character that we can appreciate today responds to historical facts typical of the domain and expansion of Catholicism.

The power acquired by the Catholic Church even after the fall of the Eastern and Western Roman Empires is no secret to anyone. The religious roots persisted in the different populations even after two events.

Christmas carols evolved around Christianity due to the reach that Catholicism had in the lands where they originated. Today, in addition to the clear Islamic influence, Spain is a land with extensive Catholic dominance. It is enough to study its history to notice.

If, together with what has been commented in advance, we add aspects such as the inquisition, and the power exercised so that everything that was carried out revolved around the church and its powers, things begin to be understood a little more.

Having, therefore, the Christian faith as its center, the Christmas carol was consolidated as typical of Catholicism. After some two hundred years he sailed the seas and reached South American lands, hand in hand with the Spanish and Portuguese - of course, it should not be overlooked that the Christmas carols also reached the north at the hand of the English-.

Already, in what would later become Latin America, they continued their growth and underwent several modifications, adjusting to the characteristics of each region and its syncretisms..

The truth is that today it is impossible to talk about Christmas carols without associating them with the Christian faith, and the reason is what has been exposed, however its origin is far from what can currently be appreciated.

Profane songs made Christian Christmas carols

The renowned composer Thomas Tallis was responsible for the realization of a considerable number of liturgical-Christmas pieces during the 16th century.. Puer Natus Est Nobis It is a 6th century composition, a Gregorian chant, more specifically, which Tallis harmonized with various voices and incorporated it into the body of pieces of the Christmas mass.

Tallis's adaptation of profane themes to the chants of mass was not new. Years ago, in the 12th century, a French monk named Adán de San Víctor adapted several secular songs of the time and incorporated them into religious songs.

This mixture of styles greatly enriched church music. The 12th century served as a breeding ground for the development of musical forms in the different native languages ​​of Germany, France and Italy. These demonstrations later strengthened what would later become Christmas carols..

Christmas carols in England

It was in 1426 when the English first appreciated Christmas carols in their language. It fell to a Shropshire priest, John Awdlay, to carry out the task.

In the clergyman's work there are 25 pieces with the schemes of the Christmas carols. It is thought that they were sung through the streets of the towns, and from house to house, by groups of settlers. It is also said that they drank cider while doing so, thus cheering up the inhabitants.

From this that is told here comes the worldwide custom of singing Christmas songs in the streets on Christmas Eve..

Christmas carols in the Middle Ages

To speak properly of Christmas carols in the Middle Ages in Spain and Portugal, is to refer, inevitably, to Mozarabic poetry. The influence of the Moors in the development of Christmas carols is undeniable.

As mentioned in advance in the upper paragraphs, the resemblance of the verse arrangement of the jarchas to the Christmas carols is very remarkable..

However, prior to the arrival of the Arabs to the Iberian Peninsula, the Visigoths were the owners and lords, and their culture was imposed. The only counterproductive with respect to the contribution of the Goths to the Hispanic lyric of that time was the conversion to Catholicism in 589.

This momentous step had very important implications in the poetic development of Hispania. Knowing the power of Catholicism and how it expanded its coffers, obviously all the arts in the area ended up working around faith. Poetry was not exempt from that.

Arrival of the Arabs

Already with the arrival of the Arabs, 120 years after the conversion to Catholicism, religious disputes began and Islam prevailed. With the arrival of the new dogma, contrary to what was expected, there was an intense literary flowering. Poetry in the form of cantiga, moaxajas and auctions or jarchas, became protagonists.

The Islamic faith was perceived, but it was not so invasive. Perhaps the most enriching thing in this medieval Spanish period regarding Christmas carols was the range of cultures that coexisted in Hispania at that time. The Hebrew poetry and the Arab poetry of the street, of the common people, swarmed and branched out.

From what was discussed in the previous paragraph emerged the logical link between the Christmas carol and its forms with the jarchas and cantigas. Let's say that each century was poetically adorning itself according to the needs of the common people and what the church of the day imposed.

The truth is that before the decline of Arab rule in Spain, the Ismailis having been in power practically throughout the Middle Ages, their lyrical influence had already become indelible for its inhabitants..

The carol of the ambassador's wife

A clear example is evidenced in 1403, by the wife of King Enrique III's ambassador, Ruy González de Clavijo:

"Oh brave sea, dodge / I complain / face me that I live / with great mansella!".

A clear carol in hexasyllable quatrains with abab rhyme. However, due to its clear Mozarabic influence, it could easily be said that it is a jarcha or closure of a moaxaja. Everything goes together.

The genre in its beginnings dealt with a diversity of topics, as previously discussed. The truth is that Mozarabic poetry, and all its qualities, was closely tied to the birth and development of Christmas carols in the Spanish Middle Ages..

After succeeding in imposing itself Catholicism again, it took the good and discarded what was left over. For obvious reasons, Mozarabic poetry maintained its place of honor.


Of profane origin

As with the many liturgical customs that today are believed to be of religious origin, Christmas carols have their origin in the popular, very distant from the divine. It was in the daily songs, in the conversations and colloquial diversions, that arose.

After characters such as Thomas Tallis and Adán San Víctor, among many many, made adaptations of colloquial compositions to ecclesiastical ones, Christmas carols, with their rhythms, lyrics and melodies, became part of liturgical celebrations and later Christmas.


His verses are usually of minor art: hexasyllables and octosyllables. This type of metric gives them great musicality and is easy to adjust with any accompaniment. In addition to this, memorization is very easy.

Application of polyphony

Composers struggled to arrange three or four voices. This gave a more solemn character to his performances within the temples. As the music evolved, more sound resources were added to the pieces, instruments and other nuances.


Among the topics covered by this type of composition, some stand out that are repeated very constantly. The "poetic self", in the vast majority of cases, is usually a woman. Among these we find:

- Lovers, represented as "friends".

- "La guarda", that woman who fights to achieve her independence.

- "The precocious damsel", the girl who needs to find that "friend" who complements her, and who begins to notice that she is the center of attention of men.

- The "woman suffered in a bad marriage", who feels imprisoned and used and wants to escape.

- The "nun", who sees the prison in the convent and uses any device to be free.

Poetic symbols

Every poetic form has a series of linguistic signs that function as metaphors and that express the ideas and intentions of the poet. Among those that occur mostly in Christmas carols, we have:

- The flower of the field that is collected and given to the loved one: feminine beauty or virginity.

- Dawn: Farewell to lovers.

- The sunset: lovers' meeting.

- Picking flowers, bathing, washing shirts: the meeting between lovers.

- Dying: Joyful, desired, intimate, sexual union.

- Fresh water from the source or the river: infatuation or pleasure.

- Ring: the secret love that is accepted. Losing the ring: hopeless love.


Christmas carols are commonly conformed as follows:

- A verse or chorus that consists of 2, 3 or 4 verses, these are repeated continuously throughout the entire poem.

- A quatrain called "mudanza", with rhyme, commonly: abba, abab.

- A verse in charge of connecting the end with the chorus, called "back" or "link".

Themes of interest

Christmas phrases.


  1. Torres, Á. (2013). The Christmas carol, a popular song that became a courtier and a Christmas song. Bolivia: The Homeland Online. Recovered from:
  2. Valencia Zuloaga, J. N. (1998). Overview of the Christmas carol. Spain: Cervantes. Recovered from:
  3. Christmas carols: what is its origin ?. (S. f.). (n / a): Bekia Navidad. Recovered from:
  4. The Christmas songs. (2013). (N / a): History of Music. Recovered from:
  5. Carol. (S. f.). (n / a): Wikipedia. Recovered from:

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