Caroling, Caroling: The Importance of Learning the Songs of Christmas

Caroling, Caroling: The Importance of Learning the Songs of Christmas
Christmas carols ever remain a bountiful source of joy. (Biba Kayewich)

One autumn, many years ago, I found myself a part of a children’s choir directed by a local music professor. Along with roughly 80 other children, I spent the weeks leading up to the holidays preparing for a Christmas concert, learning various singing techniques, while also memorizing the words to classic carols.

I knew the old standbys, of course, but this director introduced me to some unfamiliar carols from various eras and cultures, as did future choir directors whom I sang under as I progressed through my teens and early 20s. It wasn’t until years later, however, while listening to carol after carol play on the radio or a musical album, that I realized just what a repertoire of Christmas carol knowledge I had accumulated through those childhood choir experiences.

That knowledge is one that I’m extremely grateful for today—and one that we should all seek to give our own children. Why? Simply because an intimate knowledge of Christmas carols gives not only a secret source of joy for the season, but it also provides a bountiful well of cultural literacy from which children will draw and make connections for years to come.

Carols for Cultural Literacy

“To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world,” U.S. educator E.D. Hirsch Jr. once wrote. We can go through life taking in all the words and thoughts and actions around us, but when we know where those same pieces of culture come from—and the thoughts behind them—we pull back a layer of meaning, inheriting the ability to understand the world at a deeper level.

Take all of the Christmas catchphrases that populate social media, popular Christmas décor, and advertising, for example. “A Weary World Rejoices,” “Joyful and Triumphant,” “Glory to the Newborn King,” and “All is Calm, All is Bright” are a few that come to mind. On the surface, these just seem like nice sentiments. Yet each comes from a Christmas carol, and those who know the contextual surroundings of these phrases that pepper society during the holidays have access to new avenues of thought and reflection as they go about their daily duties.

Christmas carols ever remain a bountiful source of joy. (Biba Kayewich)
Christmas carols ever remain a bountiful source of joy. (Biba Kayewich)
Knowing Christmas carols can also advance our knowledge of history and the theological underpinnings of Western tradition. The full version of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” for instance, recounts the feelings and effects of the Civil War on American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Other carols, such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” take us back to the medieval period, explaining Jewish messianic prophecies and their fulfillment through the incarnation of Christ, British composer Andrew Gant explains in “The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs.”
But such encoded historical and theological lessons are topped by perhaps the greatest Christmas code of all found in “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Supposedly created during a time of persecution during England’s early modern period, this seemingly silly song is “a refreshing reminder of the essential elements of Christian faith,” Ace Collins writes in “Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas.” The “partridge in a pear tree,” for instance, is Jesus Christ; the “three French hens” are the faith, hope, and love written about in 1 Corinthians 13 in the Bible; and the “10 lords a-leaping” are the 10 commandments. Children who learn such a song uncover the mysteries and elements of the faith that undeniably changed the course of the Western world and continues to permeate society today, albeit an admittedly secular one.

Caroling for Truth and Light

The benefits of knowing Christmas carols extend beyond cultural literacy, however, particularly because of their connection to music.
During a time of the year that’s traditionally dark and gloomy—and especially during an age in which depression, anxiety, and suicide are ever more prevalent—having words of song ready to burst forth from the lips can be a great physical, mental, and emotional booster. Physically, singing “relieves stress,” “stimulates the immune response,” “increases the pain threshold,” and “improves lung function,” the medical journal Heart Views reported in 2021. On the mental and emotional side of things, singing builds community and strengthens bonds, according to the Sing Up Foundation, while also increasing confidence through the endorphins released during the process.
But unless I miss my guess, the reason that carols are so uplifting has to do with something that goes beyond mere endorphins. Carols contain great truths—truths of hope, love, and joy—something that’s hard to find in an age where truth is viewed as relative. Those who know carols have that truth hidden in their hearts, ready to pull out at a moment’s notice. It may come out while sitting in church ... or it may come out in such an obscure place as the mall, where instrumentals of Christmas carols serenade shoppers. Regardless, those truths are there, ready for when the one who holds them may need them the most—perhaps even during a time of future crisis.

Inculcating Carols in Your Children

How can we pass carols and the benefits that they contain on to our children? The best way is just to surround them with carols during the Christmas season (or beyond—hey, my dad used to sing “Joy to the World” year-round!).

So take children to concerts featuring new and old carols. Find musical albums or radio stations that feature simple and straightforward versions of classic carols—classical public radio stations or traditional Christian stations often feature the best. Googling “classic Christmas carols,” or searching the phrase on YouTube will further increase your options. Finally, all of us have learned Christmas carol tunes by osmosis, even if we don’t know the words. So sit your family down and carve out a few nights to learn all of the verses of one carol together. Knowing the tune will make the memorizing that much easier.

Once you’ve learned a handful, don’t keep them to yourselves! Bundle up, head outside, and share them with neighbors, caroling in the old-fashioned way. After all, the truth and joy of Christmas carols isn’t meant to be kept just to encourage oneself—it’s meant to be given away.

Annie Holmquist is a cultural commentator hailing from America's heartland who loves classic books, architecture, music, and values. Her writings can be found at Annie's Attic on Substack.
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