Joy to the world!
Who has had carolers come to their home yet? With two days left until Christmas, you might just see a group of neighborhood carolers at your door to spread some Christmas cheer pretty soon. It’s a wonderful tradition that has been around for centuries. But just how long has this been going on? Well, come on with me, the Ghost of Christmas Past, and let’s find out. For our fourth stop on our Holiday History Week, we’re going back, way back, farther than we’ve gone back before, to Rome in 120 A.D.
Let’s go A’Caroling!
Singing has been around since man first walked the earth, and carols, which means dancing and singing with joy, have been sung for thousands of years. The first carols that were sung were not actually Christmas carols though. Early pagans sung carols every solstice while they danced in circles to celebrate the changing of the seasons.
Around 120 A.D., early Christians took over this tradition for the winter solstice, and Christian carols were written for people to sing in churches. The first actual published carol was in 129 A.D. when a Roman bishop wrote a song called “Angel’s Hymn” and declared that it was the official Christmas song of Rome. Romans sang the song every Christmas, and popularized the tradition of caroling. By 750 A.D. caroling had spread throughout Europe and many of the earliest composers in Rome had written Christmas carols so people had a variety of them to sing at Christmas. The problem was that many of them were written in Latin, which was a language that a good chunk of people couldn’t understand, so caroling, for a period, declined in popularity, and by the Middle Ages, the celebration of Christmas altogether started to become a thing of the past until St. Francis of Assisi stepped in in 1223 with his Nativity plays in Italy.
The songs, called canticles, that were sung in these plays were sung in both Latin and English so people watching the plays could understand and join in, and these new songs became the first Christmas carols that spread throughout Europe. Once more, people began to sing carols and singing carols became even more popular than they were when they were first introduced.
By the 1400s, Christmas carols became a bit more religious-based, focusing on the birth of Jesus and celebrating God, and Mary and Joseph. People began singing carols at home in addition to singing them in church, and traveling singers and entertainers began to sing them out in the streets for money.
When the Puritans took over England in the 1600s, they disliked caroling because it had originally been a pagan tradition, so they outlawed caroling and anyone caught singing a Christmas carol was punished. The tradition of caroling was discontinued for over a century because of this, and did not gain popularity again until the early Victorian era when, in the 1830s, two men by the name of William Sandys and Davis Gilbert published a collection of old hymns they had found in English villages. These carols had been written and sung in secret when the Puritans were in power and had been passed down to the younger generations for safe keeping.
After the publication of these Christmas carols, people once again began singing them in homes, churches, and out in the street. The tradition of going door to door caroling started here. Groups of people would get together and sing carols at the doorsteps of wealthy people to solicit donations for the poor or they would go from house to house just for the sake of spreading Christmas cheer. Like most everything else, Christmas carols came to America with the arrival of European immigrants and the tradition was welcomed and cherished.
Since then, old carols and new ones that have been written in more recent times have been sung loudly and proudly from decade to decade, generation to generation. Because the music of Christmas refused to be silenced, we now have the jovial tradition to this day. So dance like no one is watching and sing like no one is listening, and be merry!
Christmas Fig Cake (also called Buccellato)
What could complete a Christmas in Italy like a fig and nut-filled wreath-shaped cake? Here’s how to make it:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups flour
2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup dried figs
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup dried currants or raisins
1/2 cup Marsala or rum
Juice and zest of one orange
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves (optional)
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Colored candy sprinkles (optional)
Candied fruit or maraschio cherries (optional)
~To make the pastry:
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar. Add the eggs,
milk, and vanilla. Mix until blended. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt.
Mix until the ingredients form a dough. Gather the dough into a ball and then
flatten into a disk. Wrap and refrigerate for 3 hours or as long as overnight.
~To make the filling:
In a food processor, combine the figs and walnuts. Pulse to chop coarsely.
Transfer to a bowl and stir in the currants or raisins. Add the Marsala or rum,
orange juice and zest, cinnamon, and optional cloves. Cover and allow the
mixture to sit for 2-3 hours to absorb the liquid. Then stir in the honey and
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Grease a large baking sheet or line it with parchment paper.
~To shape and bake the buccellato:
On a lightly floured surface, shape the dough into a rectangle. Roll out into an
18 x 9-inch rectangle. Spoon the filling lengthwise in a 3-inch strip down the
center of the dough. Lift one long side of the dough over the filling. Fold the
other side over the top of the first. Press to seal. Gently transfer the log,
seam side down, onto the prepared baking sheet. Bring the ends together to
form a ring. Pinch ends together to seal. Use a fork to pierce the dough from
top to bottom in rows about 1/2-inch apart. Alternately, use a sharp knife to
make a series of decorative slashes around the cake. Bake until golden
brown, about 35-40 minutes. Transfer to a rack and allow to cool on the baking
sheet for 10 minutes. Transfer the cake to the rack to cool completely.
~To make the sugar icing:
In a small bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar and vanilla. Add water a
tablespoon at a time, until the icing is smooth. Icing should be fairly thick but
Brush the cake with the sugar icing. While the icing is still wet, decorate it
with chopped pistachios. Add decorative sprinkles, candied fruit, and/or
cherries, if desired. Serve at room temperature. To store, wrap tightly and
store at room temperature up to 3 days.