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Sunday Scribblings #87: The Wonderful Story of the Carol

As another year slowly comes towards its last few weeks, I am looking back to see what I did and didn’t do. Regardless, I do plan on setting the bar higher for the coming year, and ending on a high note for this one! Talking about bars and high notes leads me to the next point, the poetic form for this Sunday. For this Poetic Sunday, I bring you the carol, seasonally apt and even more to the point, specifically for this day too. You see, as I mentioned in last week’s Scribblings, the second Sunday of December is celebrated as World Choral Day. So read on to learn the wonderful story of the carol… (well, I did find it pretty cool) as well as learn the form itself…

Sunday Scribblings #87: The Wonderful Story of the Carol

Poetic Sundays: The Carol Form

As I mentioned earlier, with the season in mind and the fact that the second Sunday of December is annually celebrated as World Choral Day, today I bring you the carol.

The Wonderful Story of the Carol

Per the Merriam Webster dictionary

Definition of carol (Entry 1 of 2)
1: an old round dance with singing
2: a song of joy or mirth
the carol of a bird
— Lord Byron
3: a popular song or ballad of religious joy

The Beginning

The very beginning: Around the beginning of the millennium (1st through 4th centuries). The setting: Rome where Latin hymns were composed by the Archbishop. Some hymns (written by a Spanish poet named Prudentius) are still sung in some churches today. From the 9th through the 12th centuries, various Christmas texts slowly developed into rhymed stanzas, and set to music from popular songs of the time (source).

1223: The setting: Assisi where St. Francis came up with the first Nativity scene; songs accompanied by lively music and ring dancing to help as preaching aids most likely influenced by the earlier songs were most likely the first songs closest to the modern carol.

Wandering troubadours and minstrels popularized the carols at various times, and both the lyrics as well as tunes were slightly adapted to locals as they traveled. Since the tunes were often popular dance based tunes, these were also used for ring dancing in various communities.

Through the 15th century: The setting: Europe. The carol gained popularity up until the 15th century when several carols were published, including a book of carols called the Fayrfax Manuscript and the Piae Cantiones. During the 15th century, in addition to its use as a religious song, it also developed as a literary form.

However, changes in the late 15th/early 16th century brought an end to the carol’s popularity along with various other celebrations.

The Revival

18th and 19th centuries: . Its communal roots and use of popular music kept it alive though, and the carol saw a revival after the Reformation around late 18th century when Protestant churches gained more power. Songs like ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ became popular, and the publication of various music books in the 19th century containing carols as well as composers coming up with new carols helped the form regain popularity.

In the 20th century, Oxford University Press further popularized the carol when it published the book Carols for Choirs. The book has since had various volumes published along with addendums.

And I am sure many of these will be performed on World Choral Day as well as other occasions by choirs around the world!


While it is unclear if the word originates from the French carole meaning a circular dance, you will see that the story below does contain references to ring or round dancing.

It is to be noted that many of these songs were sung throughout the year and not just at Christmastime. They were also sung at harvests, the New Year, midwinter, Easter, and other events, and in addition, many were communal or secular in nature. Over time, and especially with the resurgence of their popularity in the 19th century, the timing of these songs shifted to around Christmas, and gained a more sacred or religious theme while also retaining the joyousness.

So What is the Carol Form?

The current form of the carol came to be standardized around the 15th century, and is composed of pairs of burdens and verses; with the verse usually preceded and followed by the repeating burden.

What are the burden and the verse? The burden is a two-line (couplet) refrain that sandwiches the verses. It sets the theme of the carol and is rhymed (aa). The verse is usually a quatrain or four-line stanza with a rhyme scheme of bbba (and each quatrain usually has a different end rhyme, as in ccca, ddda, and so on).

The Basics of the Carol

So, the carol form’s basic elements are that it is

  • stanzaic: any number of quatrains (the verse) sandwiched by the repeating couplet (the burden). You could also choose to have a six-line verse instead of quatrains (the most common) but remember to follow this throughout the poem
  • metered: usually trimeter, but left to the poet. Just ensure the meter is followed throughout the poem
  • rhymed: normally has a rhyme scheme of A1A2/bbbA1/A1A2/cccA2/A1A2/dddA1 and so on (or the verse can just have a bbba/ccca/…. rhyme scheme). Rhyme scheme can also vary a bit around this basic pattern
  • refrain: the burden or the couplet is repeated throughout the poem; note there are variations here too (stated in tips)
  • theme: uplifting, happy, joyous

Tips on How to Write It

Set the theme of your carol first by writing the burden or the refrain, which is the rhyming couplet that alternates between the varying quatrains. Sometimes, the couplet is not repeated intact across the carol, like in Silent Night where end ending couplet is different and simply a single line repeated twice. Or different rhyming couplets, albeit with a similar theme, are used in between the verses.

Ensure you use the same meter that you set in the burden across the verses. As mentioned earlier, you could choose to use the lines from the refrain as the last lines of the quatrains (lines one and two alternating between quatrains that follow one another); or just use the rhyme scheme of the refrain for the last lines of the quatrains.

Also recall that the rhyme scheme of the verse (quatrain) is not set in stone though you could try to rhyme the last lines with the refrain. You can have the same bbba rhyme across the verses, or have a bbba/ccca/and so on; or if you are choosing to use a hexastich instead of a quatrain verse, you could also have a bbccda/and similar.

Remember, the tone is uplifting and joyous!! And it can be something that you can sing anytime of the year too, so does not need to be religious.

Note that the form simply helps set a pattern and different popular carols and even Christmas songs follow these pattern with some deviations; but you can also see a common thread running through them. For example, the song, Walking in a Winter Wonderland has quatrains with a rhyme scheme of bbcc with the refrain of the title ‘walking in a winter wonderland’ repeating between the verses.

My Example is WIP …. I have just an idea at this time..

Your Inspiration

For inspiration and an idea of how to proceed, here is a part of the lyrics of God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. As you can see in this one, the refrain is the ‘O tidings… ‘ and each verse is a rhymed tercet (with each line of the tercet having a pause halfway through when sung)

God rest ye merry gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay (b)
Remember, Christ, our Saviour Was born on Christmas day (b)
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray (b)
O, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy (A1)
O, tidings of comfort and joy (A2)

In Bethlehem, in Israel, This blessed Babe was born (c)
And laid within a manger Upon this blessed morn (c)
The which His Mother Mary Did nothing take in scorn (c)
O, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy (A1)
O, tidings of comfort and joy (A2)

“Fear not then,” said the Angel “Let nothing you affright (d)
This day is born a Saviour Of a pure Virgin bright (d)
To free all those who trust in Him From Satan’s power and might” (d)
O, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy (A1)
O, tidings of comfort and joy (A2)

References, h/t, Additional Reading

Pin Me

Snowmen carolling in front of a tree: title of pin is Poetic Sundays: The Carol Form


On My Blog

My recent posts since and including my last Sunday Scribblings (not very many)

And At Home

My allergy symptoms continue but at a much lower level. Unfortunately my daughter did fall sick and develop enough symptoms that she had to stay home for the second half of the week. Thankfully, her Covid tests came back negative; also, she is feeling better now and strong enough to study for her mid terms.


On My Blog and Home Front

Oh well, I never got around to the mini-reviews of my YA reads this past week but the coming week is another week after all!! While my son will be home after having finished his first finals of his college life (first quarter as a freshman completed!), my daughter will be busy studying for her midterms. And then we can start taking it easy and celebrating the season starting Thursday this week:-)

This Week’s Celebrations

Literary Celebrations (close-to-it also!)

  • Literary birthdays this week include: Dec 13th celebrates Tamora Pierce; Carolyn M. Rodgers and Shirley Jackson on the 14th of December; Betty Smith on Dec 15th; Arthur C. Clarke, Jane Austen, Nissim Ezekiel, and Margaret Mead on the 16th of December; Dec 17th celebrates Jacqueline Wilson; Saki on the 18th of December; Robin Sloan and Eve Bunting on Dec 19th (and my son as well, who is, according to me, a brilliant writer in his own accord)

Foodie Celebrations

Other Celebrations

Multi-Day Events

Wrapping up my Sunday Scribblings

So dear reader, you have reached the end of this Sunday Scribblings! As always, I welcome your thoughts, comments, and suggestions about this post. And do let me know if you plan to celebrate any of these mentioned celebrations this coming week/month?

Linking this to the Sunday Post over at the Caffeinated Reviewer and the Sunday Salon

20 thoughts on “Sunday Scribblings #87: The Wonderful Story of the Carol

  1. I’m glad your allergies are a little bit better. I hope you get time to do your mini-reviews next week.

    And thank you for sharing the information on the carol. Fascinating. I hope you’ll post your carol if/when it becomes more than a work in progress.

    1. and apparently Ice Cream day too Martha!! Your December challenge related to comments has me looking at the huge number of comments I left unanswered as well.. I am going to work on it 10 a day (too many remaining on my side to even put the number here_

  2. So much history behind carols! I love it. I’ve been wanting to get a group together to go around and sing carols for people. I don’t know how that would be received though haha

  3. I’m so glad you all are healthy and well. Any illness these days is just so scary. Thank you for sharing some pretty interesting things about the history of carols in this post. I had no idea before reading this today.

  4. Thank goodness for your health. This insight on carols is amazing. I grew up singing carols and am passing it on to my kiddos but did not know how these came to be. Thank you.

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