One of my favorite parts of the Christmas season is the music. I recently had the good fortune to go caroling through the streets of Urbana with some friends, for which we were rewarded with cookies and good cheer from all around. Singing carols for me brings back memories from my childhood, as well as a host of literary associations. To my mind, some of the best depictions of Christmas celebrations are Washington Irving’s stories. If you celebrate Christmas, you may want to read the whole set, which contain the idyllic accounts of the narrator’s travels throughout the English countryside. I will quote just a small snippet:
While I lay musing on my pillow, I heard the sound of little feet pattering outside of the door, and a whispering consultation. Presently a choir of small voices chanted forth an old Christmas carol, the burden of which was,
Rejoice, our Saviour he was born
On Christmas Day in the morning.
I rose softly, slipped on my clothes, opened the door suddenly, and beheld one of the most beautiful little fairy groups that a painter could imagine. It consisted of a boy and two girls, the eldest not more than six, and lovely as seraphs. They were going the rounds of the house, and singing at every chamber-door; but my sudden appearance frightened them into mute bashfulness. They remained for a moment playing on their lips with their fingers, and now and then stealing a shy glance, from under their eyebrows, until, as if by one impulse, they scampered away, and as they turned an angle of the gallery, I heard them laughing in triumph at their escape.
As always, in writing this post I wanted to know more about the word carol, which led me to discover its link with an important feature of my academic life, the carrel. In fact, these two words are etymologically the same, both having developed from the Middle English sense, a “ring dance with accompaniment of song” (according to the OED). The word ultimately seems to derive from the Greek χορός, or “chorus.” The spelling carol was later restricted to Christmas songs or hymns, while carrel came to refer to the “ringed” enclosures found in monasteries. Its current use, for the small cubicles in libraries (the picture above is of my carrel) brings to mind the “monkish” aspects associated with academic study. This word’s connotations of seclusion and seriousness are in curious opposition to the much more communal and joyful associations of carol. I hope in the new year to achieve a greater equilibrium of carols and carrels in my life: to join in the full appreciation of friends and family, while at other times being able to “turn off” the outside world in order to concentrate on my reading and writing. These few days of December for me, however, are a time to tip the balance towards carols, and on that note, I wish you all a merry Christmas!