The word 'carol' like 'choral' and 'chorus' referred not to song, but dance. That's right Footloose fans! Apparently ring dances performed to flute music were popular with the ancient Greeks (current Greeks too if they have too much Retsina). And since the Romans ripped off everything the Greeks did, it got popular in Italy too. Then it migrated to England when the Romans invaded. Ring-around-dancing stayed popular through medieval times. By the thirteenth century 'carol' had come to mean not dance - but the music instead. Today, only the second meaning remains. Isn't that spiffy? Wonder what else has changed meaning so dramatically in two thousand years?
Back to X-mas traditions, joyous songs date back to St. Francis of Assisi. He is supposed to have led the singing at a nativity scene that he set up in Gerccio. Maybe it's because he wrote the Latin hymn, "Psalmus in Nativitate," and wanted to make sure it got a good showing? Inevitably, Christmas songs spread from Italy to Europe and were extremely popular - that is, until Martin Luther's Reformation - where the Puritans decided that they were better than, "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer."
During the seventeenth century lots of carols were lost. Where do all the carols that we sing today come from then? Well, glad you asked... because I was going to tell you anyways. Most of our tunes are from the Methodists who revived the tradition. "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," was from Charles Wesley. "Joy to the World" comes from Isaac Watt - an English poet. And "O Holy Night" is French, and "Silent Night," is German - both from the 1800's as well. "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "We Three Kings," are all nineteenth century American tunes.
This practice of singing Christmas songs, you know, outside - used to be in front of the Church near the nativity scenes. It was a natural next step for these Christmas Carolers to start walking through the neighborhoods around the churches sharing their festive songs. Caroling started to decline in popularity as people were able to hear and play the same songs on the radio and eventually on their own record players. And if you've ever looked at the record section of your favorite thrift store, you'll know what I'm talking about. However, every once in a while you still might catch a group of walking through neighborhoods and sharing the Christmas message much as they have done for the past 1000 years. I guess it depends if their cable or DirecTV are out.