carol, popular hymn, of joyful nature, in celebration of an occasion such as May Day, Easter, or Christmas. The earliest English carols date from the 15th cent. The carol is characterized by simplicity of thought and expression. Many are thought to be adaptations of pagan songs. Despite the folk-song character of true carols, many Christmas hymns composed in the 19th cent. have been called carols. The oldest printed carol is the Boar's Head Carol, printed in 1521 by Wynkyn de Worde. Carols of French origin are called noels.
See R. L. Greene, The Early English Carols (1935); E. Routley, The English Carol (1958); P. Dearmer et al., ed., The Oxford Book of Carols (1928, repr. 1964).
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