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Definition of a Christmas Carol

This is probably a strange question-- I understand that a Christmas Carol involves celebratory music revolving around aspects of Christmas. Got that. However, in terms of Choral performance pieces, does it generally need to be strophic in nature? Corporately singable by an audience?
I am considering entrance to a Christmas Carol submission contest but my piece might be a bit complicated for either of those 2 parameters mentioned. Any thoughts??
Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on September 21, 2013 4:39pm
Hi Joy:
Not a strange question at all.  Medieval carols were strophic, with a repeated burden.
And their messages were not limited to Christmas.  (There is a Spring carol in Britten's
Ceremony of Carols.)  The word carol may originally have signified the kind of dance that
accompanied singing the piece.  Considering that many medieval carols were macaronic,
with snippets of Latin and French mixed with the English, they probably weren' intended for
group singing.  But the repeated burden might give an audience a way to
join in, even if they didn't know the verses.  God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen is a carol in
this sense; Jingle Bells is too, though not of medieval origin; 
In any case, the word has shifted to mean a song sung at Christmas time.  I wouldn't worry
if you piece is complicated - many traditional carols have been offered in complicated choral
versions.  When I write a carol (andf I have written over fifty), I like to hope it's accessible
enough so that the audience would want to join in, if they only knew the music.
If you have questions of this kind, you might ask the people running the contest.  Perhaps they
can direct to you pieces that have won in the past, so you can judge what their standards are.
Brian Holmes
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on September 21, 2013 9:06pm
I think you are safe.  After all, Anton Webern's wonderful "Dormi, Jesu!" is in the New Oxford Book of Carols.
on September 21, 2013 10:01pm
My thoughts:  if there is no entry fee and if you have no other piece you would submit if the answer were unfavorable, go ahead (especially if it permits electronic entry so you don't have the burden of mailing).  Otherwise query the person running the call.  Whatever we think about the answer, only what that person thinks matters in this case.  The fact that you are uncertain suggests that that person's response is unpredictable.
on September 22, 2013 1:21am
Good answer from Brian - although in no way would I call 'Jingle Bells' a carol!
A distinction can also be drawn between Christmas carols and Christmas hymns.  In our annual Christmas concerts (which many of you folk would call 'holiday concerts'!) the audience get to join in traditional Christmas hymns, such as 'Hark! The herald angels sing'. This can of course be called either a carol or a hymn, but most of the items from the choir only are likely to be just carols, or arrangements of carols.   'Jingle bells' is a secular song, and not even specifically linked to Christmas - although nowadays it seems to be mainly associated with that time of year.
on September 22, 2013 9:31am

I don't know that I agree with Gordon, though he is probably correct historically. In practical use I see a difference between a Christmas song and a Christmas carol.  White Chirstmas is in no way a Christmas Carol in my book.  Neither is Baby it's Cold Outside, Jingle Bells, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,  O Holy Night etc.  It MUST be homophonic and strophic.  Later arrangements are fine but the original needs to sing like a hymn. 

But wait, what about Angels We Have Heard On High...   Dang, always exceptions.
Joy, Perhaps your piece will be the exception.  Are their examples of pieces that won the contest last year?  Is there not a definition in the contest description?

on September 22, 2013 12:37pm
VocalEssence and the American Composers Forum run an annual Carol contest.
In their rules, they define a carol this way: a strophic song, which may or may not
have refrains, that is associated with Christmas.
They recently put out a CD of winners.  You can find it on itunes and elsewhere.
A carol of mine is included.
Brian Holmes
on September 22, 2013 3:53pm
Although the term "carol" is most associated with Christmas, there are carols for Easter, harvest, spring, etc.  The Oxford Book of Carols has many such, and Vocal Essence mentioned above is also careful to label its contest one for (Welcome) Christmas carols.  The preface to the Oxford Book of Carols offers fascinating and entertaining insights into carol history, and I recommend it highly.  Those editors emphasize carols being simple, popular, of their time -- with roots in dance and communal celebration.  I agree that being strophic is part of all that.  But as Greg Bartholomew points out, it doesn't matter what experts or any of us think in this case -- it's up to the people running the contest.  Good luck!
Christopher J. Hoh
on September 23, 2013 11:36am
Holidays rot the brain.  I've just retrunred from mine.  For lack of inspiration for anything else, I cobbled together today a TTBB arrangement of something I had originally done as an SATB* piece.  Here's the link 
Would you consider it a carol?  The tune is mine.  The text is an adaptation of a poem by American Nicholas Vachel Lindsay.  Will it pass muster as a carol?
* If you are interested the link to the SATB, sung by choir, is at
on September 23, 2013 3:16pm
Fits my unscholarly definition.  Very nice.
on September 24, 2013 9:27am
Thanks, Jack!
on September 24, 2013 6:16am
Good to know you are still writing (or re-arranging!), David.  I sometimes find that holidays are a good time to work on compositions, but I suppose it depends where you go to, what equipment you have with you and, perhaps most importantly, who you are sharing the holiday with!
Best regards,
on September 24, 2013 9:43am
Thanks, everyone for the lively discussion and input! I had emailed the director some time ago but he has not returned my query.  I'm not sure my piece fits the bill but I'll try to submit anyway. It leaves the land of strophic chorus halfway through so it may be more of a 'piece' than a 'Carol.'
In any case, Happy Christmas composing to you all!
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