Merry Christmas! The History—and Neuroscience—of Christmas Caroling

Image courtesy of deltamike on Flickr.

Image courtesy of deltamike on Flickr.

Caroling has been a popular pastime to celebrate Christmas for hundreds of years.  Indeed, chanting and song have been a part of rituals and celebrations from some of the earliest of societies.  Whether found in the first hollowed bone flute and percussive tree stump or the widely stylized play lists of today, music has been embedded in human culture.  And as contemporary studies show, our responses to music are not just attuned to auditory preferences and social context.  Music is really a “brain thing.”

But first, given the season, let’s explore the history of Christmas caroling.  The earliest carols were associated with the winter solstice in December where singing and dancing were enjoyed.  “Carol,” a derivative of the French “caroler,” originally meant to dance around something, as early celebrants did dancing around stone circles.[1]  The nascent Christian Church adopted many pagan traditions as it struggled for a foothold, including marking Christ’s birthday as coinciding with the winter solstice.  The earliest recorded Christian carols were an 129 CE “Angel’s Hymn” designated by a Roman bishop to be sung at a Christmas service, and a 160 CE hymn composed by Comas of Jerusalem for the Greek Orthodox Church.  Unfortunately, because most common people couldn’t understand the Latin lyrics, carols lost favor by the Middle Ages (around the 1200s).  However, St. Francis of Assisi roused the tradition from dusty obscurity with his Nativity Plays in Italy.  The “canticles” or songs were in the vernacular, which not only meant the audience could understand the story, but that they also could join in the singing.[2]

"Good King Wenceslas" illustrated in 1879 book by Henry Ramsden Bramley.

“Good King Wenceslas” illustrated in an 1879 collection of carols by Henry Ramsden Bramley.

As carols developed, they became mixed with more entertaining and non-religious elements, and were often sung in homes rather than churches.  “I Saw Three Ships” was an early non-liturgical carol sung by traveling minstrels.  Because of the carol’s more secular nature, England’s Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers decreed them as blasphemy, and the carol went underground in many areas until the Restoration of Charles II, when Christmas traditions were re-instated.  During the Victorian era Crown Prince Albert’s attachment to his German roots and Christmas traditions resurrected the carol.[3]  In addition, many carols were salvaged by the publishing of Christmas song collections by William Sandys and Davis Gilbert in the early 19th century, who scoured the English countryside to retrieve musical entries.[4]

Today Christmas is celebrated the world over with religious and secular abandon, and music is integral to this season.   According to scientists, music is more than evoking the nature of ritual and celebration, however.

When people hear music they like, dopamine is released in the striatum, an ancient part of the brain found in vertebrates that responds to stimuli perceived as rewarding.  This can be naturally occurring stimuli such as food and sex, or artificial stimuli produced by drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines.[5]  With a group of people, there are other sensations involved.  Päivi-Sisko Eerola was lead researcher on a 2013 study of almost one thousand Finnish pupils who took part in music classes together.  According to Eerola:

“Singing in a choir and ensemble performance are popular activities at extended music classes….studies have established that people find it very satisfying to synchronize with one another. That increases affiliation within the group and may even make people like each other more than before.”[6]

In another study, MRIs were conducted on 17 participants listening to four symphonies by composer William Boyce of the late Baroque period, which the researchers chose because the pieces were unfamiliar to the subjects.  Researchers found synchronization in several brain areas, including movement, attention, planning and memory.  According to Daniel Levitin, a prominent psychologist who studies the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montreal, the results of the study show that there is a lot going on in the processing of music beyond hearing sounds.  Whatever the personal differences, people seem to share a common experience when hearing musical sounds.

“It’s not our natural tendency to thrust ourselves into a crowd of 20,000 people, but for a Muse concert or a Radiohead concert we’ll do it,” Levitin said. “There’s this unifying force that comes from the music, and we don’t get that from other things.”[7]

So let’s break out that eggnog, gather together friends and family (or anyone with a penchant for singing), and let those melodies roll!  Feels good, doesn’t it?  Merry Christmas!

Click here for a sampling of carols from different countries and with different musical styles ranging from traditional and classical to reggae and the blues:







7. Ibid.

2 responses to “Merry Christmas! The History—and Neuroscience—of Christmas Caroling

  1. Pingback: The History of Christmas Carols | My Frenglish Thoughts

  2. Pingback: Merry Christmas from AntiquityNOW | AntiquityNOW

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