The word came into English from the medieval French for “round dance.” In fifteenth-century England the carol developed into an important type of vocal composition. Although no longer danced, it retained structural evidence of its origin. A refrain called “burden” was sung before the first stanza, repeated between each succeeding one, and at the end. The subject matter was not always religious, but many concerned the Nativity or the Virgin Mary. Music has survived for only about a third of the extant texts. A well-known composition employing authentic medieval texts with modern music is A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten (cf. for texts, R.L. Green, The Early English Carol, 1935; for music, Musica Britannica, vol. IV, 1952).
In later times, anonymous folk ballads and lyrics dealing with aspects of the Nativity and attendant events, real or mythical, became known as carols. In England these correspond to the noÉls of France and the Weihnachtslieder of Germany. From the sixteenth century, such lyrics were frequently circulated in broadsheets. There are carols for seasons other than Christmas. The Romantic era brought an interest in folksong, which led to the preservation of texts and melodies in print that had been transmitted only in oral tradition. Excellent examples from the eighteenth century are “God rest you merry” and “A Virgin unspotted.” Today all Christmas hymns are frequently but incorrectly referred to as Christmas carols.
See P. Dearmer,and M. Shaw (eds.), The Oxford Book of Carols (1928); and E. Routley, The English Carol (1959).