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Christmas Carols
Michael Ellis celebrates the music that makes this season bright.

By Michael Ellis

There are many reasons to celebrate in this dark time of the year. We gather with family and friends to exchange gifts and well wishes. We donate to the needy. We rejoice in the brightness of the Christmas tree, the festive lights and the Yule log.  

But my favorite aspect of this season is the communal singing. There is such a warm, fuzzy feeling when you join together with other people in common voice. We often do this at sporting events, theater and other performances where we clap, jeer or just plain yell, and it feels mighty fine.

America is a very diverse nation, an assemblage of people and cultures from all over the world. We often have little in common, but there is one fairly narrow area in which many of us overlap, and that is the singing of Christmas carols. The words of these simple songs, at least the first verse, are known to most of us.  

Carols are the most secular of all religious music. In Latin, "chora rula" meant one who accompanies a chorus on a reed instrument, and a related word meant circle dance. So the word "carol" originally meant a round dance and the song accompanying it. The leader sang the verses while the dancers sang the recurring refrain or chorus.

The church originally looked down on this singing as being too pagan and banned it.

But legend has it that St. Francis of Assisi introduced the songs into the church in the 13th century. This was the first time carols, and not hymns, were sung at a church service.

They rapidly gained popularity and eventually the dancing fell away, and only the songs were left.

During the Victorian era, the writing and singing of Christmas carols reached a zenith. The common denominator then and today is that the singing of carols thoroughly imbue us with a spirit of joy and play. We love to sing. And this is the only time of year when our collective voices gain in timbre, volume and spirit.

This is Michael Ellis, with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads tours throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.

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