(Fr. noel; Ger. Weihnachtslied).
In medieval times a round dance with mus. acc., but soon developed into a song for 2 or 3 vv. usually (but not necessarily) to a text dealing with the birth of Christ. All Christian nations, Western and Eastern, have carols, some of them evidently of pagan origin but taken over and adapted in early days of Christianity. The nature of the carol varies: it may be dramatic, narrative, or lyrical.
One of oldest printed Eng. Christmas carols is the Boar's Head Carol, sung as the traditional dish is carried in on Christmas Day at Queen's College, Oxford; it was printed in 1521. This is but one of a large group of carols assoc. with good cheer as an element in Christmas joy.
With the growth of the Christmas season as a public holiday which became increasingly commercialized, the carol grew in popularity and, concomitantly, in vulgarity so that some 19th‐cent. carols are of inferior standard, but the best of them have achieved a place alongside the folk‐carols and 17th‐cent. Ger. carols which were revived by the late 19th‐cent. folk‐song movement. A fine selection is sung annually in Eng. on Christmas Eve at King's College, Cambridge. Vaughan Williams wrote a Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Hely‐Hutchinson A Carol Symphony, and Britten a Ceremony of Carols.