The word carol or carole is a medieval word of French and Anglo-Norman origin, believed to mean a dance song or a circle dance accompanied by singing. Broadly defined, carols express religious joy and is often associated to the Christmas season. Carols are also used to describe late medieval English songs on various subjects with a verse and refrain. Often the verse and refrain (also called burden) alternates.
History of Christmas Carols
It is unclear when the first carol was written but it is believed that circa 1350 to 1550 is the golden age of English carols and most of the carols followed the verse-refrain pattern.
During the 14th century carols became a popular religious song form. The theme often revolved around a saint, the Christ child or the Virgin Mary, at times blending two languages such as English and Latin.
By the 15th century the carol was also considered as art music. During this time, elaborate arrangements were made and carols were considered an important contribution to English medieval music. The Fayrfax Manuscript, a court songbook featuring carols, was written by the end of the 15th century. The songs were written for 3 or 4 voices and themes were mostly on the Passion of Christ.
By the 16th century though, the popularity of carols faltered, almost disappearing entirely if not for the revival that happened by the middle of the 18th century. Most of the carols we know today were written during this period.