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Classical Notes: December 20, 2006 Archive

Caroling and Jack the Ripper

Posted at 9:40 AM on December 20, 2006 by John Zech
Filed under: The blog

Some recent developments in the case of the "Suffolk Strangler" in England reminded me of an urban legend about why we call songs of the season "Christmas Carols."

According to the legend, a little girl named Carol Poles was reported missing around Christmas in 1888 in the Whitechapel district of London, and a large search party went out looking for her. At that time people were scared of Jack the Ripper, history's first recorded serial killer, who (like the Suffolk Strangler) had been killing prostitutes in London's East End and then vanishing right under the noses of the constabulary.

As the story goes, the searching parties would sing Christmas "carols" when they knocked at a door, to show they were friendly visitors. The tradition became so popular that "caroling" was carried on every Yuletide after, amen.

Total poppycock...one of those "just so" stories, like "plucking the yew," which find favor with a gullible public.

My research (aka "googling") indicates the word "carol" comes from a Greek dance called a choraulein, which was accompanied by flute music. As the dance spread through Europe it caught on big time in France where it became "caroller," a circle dance accompanied by singers. Originally, carols were performed on many occasions during the year, but by the 17th century the carols evolved into songs associated primarily with Christmas.

You can find the stories behind a lot of the famous carols at this website from the U.K.