In the ancient past, the wassail, a pagan fertility ritual, gave us door-to-door carol singing. Wassailing was an integral part of a midwinter festival that was adopted by Christianity when it came to Britain, rebranded as ‘Christmas’.
Religion soon turned its back on carols as they were far too frivolous for Puritans, who wanted to ban Christmas altogether. French Catholics on the other hand didn’t mind fun, and Lucy crosses the channel to learn a renaissance jig, which became ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ in the 19th century.
British Catholics were oppressed for generations after the Reformation, but one Catholic scribe, John Francis Wade, hid a coded message of support for a Jacobite rebellion in the carol ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’.
Finally, in the snowy Austrian Alps, Lucy discovers the simple story of a young parish priest with a poem in search of a tune; the result was ‘Silent Night’. It reminds us that carols are, and have always been, ‘popular music’, music for the people, fulfilling an enduring need to celebrate and sing together at Christmas.
Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey – Monday at 9pm on BBC Four