Many of the symbols and practices of the Celtic midwinter celebration known as Yule (probably several thousand years older than the festival of Christmas) have come down to us in a curious amalgamation of mythologies, pagan and Christian. Yule marks the time of the winter solstice, around 21st December—the longest
and darkest night of the year, when the coming of spring seems a faint hope. To fortify that hope, the ancient Celts, who dwelt throughout Britain, held
a celebration of lights, to give power to the returning sun. They brought evergreens into their homes to symbolize life at the time when most of nature seemed dead and
dark, and they gave and received gifts to represent wisdom gained from looking inward during the long winter nights. These symbols, and many other elements of ancient pagan ceremonies, were absorbed into the early Christian festivals, blending into a multi-layered expression of the universal cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
The traditional music associated with the mid-winter festival is also interwoven with threads of pre-Christian ritual and folk customs. The concerns of an ancient people dependent upon the whims of nature for food and shelter are expressed not only in imagery of the natural world, but even in the form of the songs themselves. The word “carol” (from Old French carole) originally meant a dance performed in a circle, the dancers also singing a verse with a recurring refrain. This was
probably derived from ancient ritual dances with call-and-response chanting, used at magical ceremonies throughout the cycle of the year.
Even by the Middle Ages, the carol was not limited to the winter season; only much later
did the term take on its present meaning of a song for the Christmas season.