I looked up differences between Christmas carols and other Christmas songs. Generally about carols being about nativity or some other traditional songs not necessary religious while other Christmas songs are about things like love, loneliness, fun, celebration etc. set around Christmas time. But different sources don't agree on the exact definition.

I guess everyone agrees that Silent Night and some others are carols and that Stop the Cavalry (by Jona Lewie) is not. But then there's Jingle Bells. According to some sources it's a carol. It's traditional albeit secular and initially not allowed in churches. Many people agree it's a carol without even considering to question it. But other sources say it's not a carol as it's not about nativity. Then there's 12 Days of Christmas.

Is there a clear definition of a Christmas Carol? Who's the authority on what the definition is? (I'd expect the church.) Or is it loose and for some songs it's a matter of opinion?

  • To me, a hymn is a religious song meant to be sung during a service or as worship. There are Christmas hymns to be sung during the Christmas season. A Christmas song is any song about Christmas or set during Christmas time or sung often during Christmas time. And a Christmas carol is any song that is or could be sung a capella after ringing someone’s doorbell. Some Christmas songs wouldn’t work very well a capella. Pretty much all hymns work a capella so pretty much any christmas hymn could be a Christmas carol also. Others likely have different viewpoints. Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 2:10
  • Wikipedia: Carol (music)
    – Ben Miller
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 4:35
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    Rather a lot of "christmas" songs are from pagan religions or simply local folk songs. What a given house of worship allows varies rather dramatically. Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 16:05
  • I'm with Carl here. I doubt very much that there's any useful distinction to be made here. "Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly" is often sung as a "Christmas carol", yet it is purely pagan imagery. Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 14:49
  • It appears, as I've suspected, that carols are songs, traditionally sung at Christmas time, that have been declared carols. No firm definition, no consensus for some songs (like Jingle Bells or Deck the Halls which are widely accepted as carols) whether they are carols or not and no authority to back any of contradicting definitions.
    – Heimdall
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 10:42

4 Answers 4


Originally, carols - simple songs - were sung and often danced as a celebration of something joyous, often in the open air, by 'the common people'. It's said that the first carol was 'sung by angels from the sky', not surprisingly, at the first Christmas. The words still survive, apparently.

Logic says that to be a Christmas carol, the words would have to contain some reference to Christ, particularly the birth, as that's what the word Christmas means!

There are plenty of hymns which are relevant and could be sung as carols, but it seems simplicity is important, which obviates many of them. Being sung acapella is a factor - the kids asking for 'hush money' around now proving that!

Rudolph, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, et al, are often called Christmas carols, but I'd consider them as Christmas songs - sung (traditionally?) during the Christmas period, sharing joy (?) but only reflecting the time of year rather than anything religious. We don't hear Jingle Bells often at other times of the year - unless you're at one of my gigs, where snippets seem to find themselves into some solo or other...

  • 2
    Whatever logic says, common usage indicates that many songs that are called “Christmas carols” by many people are secular. Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 13:29
  • @ToddWilcox - that's true enough. Maybe more people ought to be afflicted by logic! I suppose, like so many other things, if something is said enough times, it becomes believable - even the norm. Perhaps we should regard them as we do Christmas cards - anything sent at Christmas time. But then when we call them Christmas carols, isn't that tautological? And, just because 'many people' do something, does that make it right or accurate? Just a thought...
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 3, 2018 at 13:41
  • @Tim I wouldn't see it as tautological, just a naming convention in your example. Like "Let's put some Christmas carols on. Shall we start with Slade?" But your card example might not work. There are people who were born in December...
    – Heimdall
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 10:52

"Christmas carol" and "Christmas song" have become synonymous, but there are formal definitions of "carol".

Carol, broadly, a song, characteristically of religious joy, associated with a given season, especially Christmas; more strictly, a late medieval English song on any subject, in which uniform stanzas, or verses (V), alternate with a refrain, or burden (B), in the pattern B, V1, B, V2 . . . B. (Brittanica)

The Oxford Companion to Music offers a near identical definition.1

In the Middle Ages the term "carol" referred to a song in a particular musical form peculiar to England, though in the late Middle Ages carols were classified according to their various uses. Carol form begins with a refrain known as a "burden", and is followed by verses (stanzas) of uniform structure; the burden is repeated after each verse.

By this definition, "Silent Night" is not a carol. "Jingle Bells" is, at least loosely, a carol in form, but lacking the religious text. "The 12 Days of Christmas" is not a carol.

1 The Oxford Companion to Music, ed. Alison Latham (Oxford University Press. 2003).

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    Yikes, which songs count as carols by that definition? Songs like "O Come, All Ye Faithful" come close but fail to have a refrain/burden at the very start.
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Dec 22, 2020 at 12:20
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    This reminds me of the guy who (having just received his DMA in choral conducting) tried to convince me (and the rest of the bass and tenor sections) that Handel's Messiah is not an oratorio because it was not intended for performance in an oratory. Never mind that Handel wrote "Messiah, an Oratorio" on the title page. Language changes, and words acquire new senses (whether more or less specific or simply different).
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 22, 2020 at 21:55

Not sure, but the wikipedia page here has some interesting, if not totally clarifying info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_carol .... considered a subset of "christmas music" and typically based on medieval chord "patterns." Also, songs a often sun by one or two people most often, but carols tend to be sun by a group together, right? Obviously a song a be song by multiple people, but is it common to think of a carol as being sung by one person?

  • I sing Christmas carols by myself all the time in December (often in the shower, more rarely on the street while waiting for the bus).
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Dec 2, 2018 at 7:00

Theory answer: A song that's 99% Major. Brief, but accurate.

Same deal with American patriotic songs. I was playing something for church during practice and I automatically slipped into a "My country tis of thee" Nascar-solo variant.


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