We've all seen them. Carol singers. Spreading joy and messages, tuneful or otherwise, of peace and love. As children, many of us stood in rows and sang at school during the festive period. We were no strangers to the little town of Bethlehem, to Royal David's City, to the strange Yoda-esque syntax of 'We Three Kings of Orient Are' - I remember there was 'one in a bus and one in a car', but that may not have been the traditional lyric.
Are these carol singers, these organisers of festive concerts, our only link to a traditional musical Christmas? The impact of pop culture institutions such as X-Factor, which has spawned numerous Xmas No1 hits, certainly in the UK, has shifted the musical focus somewhat. So who keeps the old-style Christmas music alive, and what can we learn from other nations?
Across much of Europe, cultures still maintain traditional songs to sing at this time of the year. They stem largely from medieval times, passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition.
Great Britain and Northern Ireland
In the player above you can see The TRU Trio, from Northern Ireland, who have rescued for Euronews a song called Don Oic he Úd i mBeithil (From One Night in Bethlehem), which describes the nativity (like the lion's share of the world's carols). They decided to do it only with the voice to reflect the sean nós (old style) of the songs of Ireland.
The TRU trio explores the musical traditions of its native Ulster. It was formed by Michael Mormecha, Zach Trouton and Dónal Kearny (who performs the song). You can listen to them at www.breakingtunes.com/truband3 and on their Facebook page .
In general, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have maintained strong cultural links to the past and kept the tradition of early music alive, although it is only a small number of people who do so. In England the traditions are less visible but can be more easily found in the ancient repertoires of regions that were historically independent kingdoms, such as Cornwall.
But the best known are of course the carols, many of which appeared in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the Bleak Midwinter, for example, is based on a Christina Rossetti poem from 1872, and set to music in the early 1900s by various arrangers and composers, including the illustrious Gustav Holst.
As one of the most prevalent nations maintaining a musical link to their cultural history, Ireland is one of the best places to find evidence of tradition.
There are many festivals and performances dedicated to old Irish music, such as the Galway Early Music Festival. Also the Royal Irish Academy of Music has its own dedicated Historical Performance Department.
Below is a performance of the Kerry Christmas Carol, which references an old tradition of leaving a candle in the window of one's house in order to help show the Holy Family the way, and to signal how welcome they are in the home.
Here is the final verse:
So leave the door upon the latch and set the fire to keep
And pray they'll rest with us tonight when all the world's asleep.
Don't blow the tall white candle out but leave it burning bright
So that they'll know they're welcome here this holy Christmas night
Spain is perhaps one of the countries in Europe that most keeps traditional Christmas music alive. Families of Flemish tradition still come together to sing. La Madrilenian singer La Jose and guitarist Leandro Bianchi perform the popular carol Ya Vienen los Reyes Magos in its flamenco version.
This Andalusian song contains a mystery. Some believe that it mentions 'Holland' in a bad translation of "Holy Land" (the Holy Land), for the Spanish military campaigns in Flanders. But it may also be because " Olanda" sounded good after" olé".
More about La Jose and Leandro Bianchi on Facebook: facebook.com/lajosemusic facebook.com/leanbianchi
But this tradition is not only kept alive in flamenco, in many villages you can still go out on the street as a family to sing at Christmas. There was a tradition that saw children go from door to door singing Christmas carols to get some Christmas pocket money, but this occurs less and less often as the activity has been somewhat hi-jacked by Halloween.
As with almost everything else in Spain, there are many differences between regions. Thus, in Extremadura or Ávila there is a great tradition of going out to the streets to sing carols "armed" with traditional instruments.
Greece and Cyprus
The Greek islands are another of the territories where musical traditions are more alive. Indeed there are about 30 different carols for each region. And not only that, there are also different songs for the New Year and the Epiphany (Three Kings Day). Most are played with typical instruments such as lute or buzuki.
These are traditional Cypriot carols.
In this link you can see a carol from Crete sung by young people. There are them for all tastes like this traditional Thracian carol, rather animated, for a Christmas song.
The Italians have not continued the tradition of carol singing on a grand scale. We do find some traditional Christmas songs in the south of the country. This is Quanno nascette Ninno (when the child is born), a traditional Neapolitan carol.
The Hungarian Christmas song par excellence is "Angel of Heaven". The tradition in northern Hungary and Transylvania is that the Christmas tree is a gift from the "angel of heaven" (the Baby Jesus).
The most folkloric part (and this is disappearing) was the tradition of children going door-to-door performing the nativity. It is not just a short song but an entire play with poems, songs and a full-scale script.
Another of the traditional Christmas carols is "Oh beautiful and incredible night"
The most typical Christmas song in Germany is Leise rieselt der Schnee (the snow falls silently), composed in 1895 by Eduard Ebel. It has been performed by almost everyone, from Romina Power and Al Bano to Nana Mouskouri .
It is a very simple melody that describes a snowy Christmas scene.
There is a long tradition of singing carols at home and in the church. O! Tannenbaum (O! Christmas Tree) is one of the most popular to sing with the family. And Mach hoch die Tür, die Tor macht weit (Open the door, the door widens), one of the most common to sing in churches, which are very popular at this time of year.
Another classic is Süsser die Glocken, (Christmas all year).
The strongest Christmas traditions in France are linked to traditionally Germanic regions such as Alsace and some parts of the Alps. However one of the best love old songs of French Christmas is in fact Austrian. "Étoile des neiges", Star of the Snows, tells a love story in the Alpine region of Savoy.
Older Christmas songs are preserved, but the tradition of Christmas carols is not very strong.