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Project Britain

British Christmas Traditions
by Mandy Barrow

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Christmas Carols

Woodlands Junior School is in the south-east corner of England

image: carol singingWhat are Christmas Carols?

Christmas carols are special songs which are sung during the Christmas season. The songs are about Jesus and the time when he was born.

Why were Christmas Carols written?

Many Christmas carols were written for a special purpose, often to accompany performances of religious dramas dating from medieval times. copyright of

In the Middle Ages, carols were dances accompanied by singing. It is thought that these dances were introduced to England from France.

What does the word 'carol' mean?

The word carol comes from the ancient Greek 'choros', which means "dancing in a circle," and from the Old French word 'carole', meaning "a song to accompany dancing".

Over the years, the word 'carol' changed its meaning, referring only to certain kinds of songs, the word carol became known as Christmas songs.

What is Carol Singing?

CarolersCarol singing, or Caroling, is singing carols in the street or public places. It is one of the oldest customs in Great Britain, going back to the Middle Ages when beggars, seeking food, money, or drink, would wander the streets singing holiday songs. © copyright of

People today still go carol singing. People go from house to house singing carols and collecting money for charity.

The traditional period to sing carols is from St Thomas's Day (21 December) until the morning of Christmas Day.


Christmas Carols were once banned

Christmas carols were banned between 1647 and 1660 in England by Oliver Cromwell, who thought that Christmas should be a solemn day. copyright of

The tradition of carol singers going from door to door came about because they were banned from churches in the Middle Ages.


The Christmas Carol Service

Probably the most famous carol service is 'The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols' held in King's College Chapel, Cambridge. It takes place on Christmas Eve and always begins with the carol, 'Once in Royal David's City' sung by a solo chorister.

Did you know?
St Francis of Assisi introduced Christmas Carols to formal church services.


The biggest selling Christmas Carol

White Christmas by Irving Berlin is the biggest-selling Christmas song of all time. It is estimated to have sold approximately 350 million copies on record and sheet music.


The Story of the Silent Night Carol

The carol Silent Night was written in 1818, by an Austrian priest Joseph Mohr. He was told the day before Christmas that the church organ was broken and would not be prepared in time for Christmas Eve. He was saddened by this and could not think of Christmas without music, so he wanted to write a carol that could be sung by choir to guitar music. He sat down and wrote three stanzas. Later that night the people in the little Austrian Church sang "Stille Nacht" for the first time.

The first instrument on which the carol "Silent Night" was played was a guitar.

Other Christmas Carols and when they were composed

1843 - O Come all ye Faithful

1848 - Once in Royal David's City

1851 - See Amid the Winters Snow

1868 - O Little Town of Bethlehem

1883 - Away in a Manger

Christmas Carols

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Mandy is the creator of the Woodlands Resources section of the Woodlands Junior website. 
The two websites and are the new homes for the Woodlands Resources.

Mandy left Woodlands in 2003 to work in Kent schools as an ICT Consulatant. 
She now teaches computers at The Granville School and St. John's Primary School in Sevenoaks Kent.