Why do we call them Christmas carols? The word carol was introduced into English by the Normans and comes from the Old French carole. It shares a root with words like chorus and choir. But in what may be probably surprising to most, the first English carols were not just songs; they were also dances. After all, in ancient Greek drama, the chorus both sang and danced, and Terpsichore was the muse of dancing.

The word is first recorded in English usage around 1300, and in these early citations it refers to a ring-dance. One of the earliest instances of the word is in the poem Kyng Alisaunder:

Faire is carole of maide gent,
Bothe in halle, and eke in tent.

(Fair is the carol of the noble maid,
Both in the hall, and also in the tent.)

Robert Mannyng’s devotional poem Handlyng Synne from 1303 records both the noun and verb in the sense of both singing and dancing:

Þese wommen ȝede and tolled here oute
wyþ hem to karolle þe cherche aboute.
Beune ordeyned here karollyng;
Gerlew endyted what þey shuld syng:
Þys ys þe karolle þat þey sunge,
As telleþ þe latyn tunge.
[Latin version of the song follows.]

(These women went and enticed her out to carol with them about the church. Beune ordained their caroling; Gerlew wrote what they should sing: this is the carol that they sung, as told in the Latin tongue.)

General merry-making was associated with carols from the beginning. The poem Cursor Mundi, also written about the same time, refers to:

Caroles, iolites, and plaies, ic haue be-haldyn and ledde in ways.

(Carols, jollities, and games, I have beheld and led in ways.)

These early uses were not, however, particularly associated with Christmas. That association began in the beginning the sixteenth century. Court records tell us that Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII spent in 1502:

Item to Cornishe for setting of a carralle upon Cristmas day.

And the early English printer Wynkyn de Worde published a book in 1521 titled Christmasse Carolles. And over time, this association grew stronger, driving out carols and caroling at other seasons.

The early use of the word to mean a ring dance also gives us another modern word, the library carrel. The use of carol to refer to a ring or enclosure also dates to the early fourteenth century. Robert Mannyng, whose Handlyng Synne is quoted above, also used the word in his Chronicle to refer to Stonehenge. And there are numerous medieval glosses of the Latin pluteus with the word carol. In classical Latin a pluteus is a shed or enclosure, particularly one used during a siege to protect the soldiers, but in medieval Latin had also come to refer to a monk’s work cubicle.

The corral for animals is also ultimately from the same Indo-European root, but that particular modern English word comes to us from Spanish America in the late sixteenth century.


Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2001, s. v. carole (n.)

Oxford English Dictionary Online, second edition, 1989, s. v. carol, n.; carol, v.; carrel, n.2; corral, n.

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