The origin of the Spanish Villancicos, from the popular news to Christmas carols

With Christmas here and, as unusual as this year’s is, it is once again accompanied by the endearing tradition of Christmas carols or villancicos in Spanish. Originally, they were in charge of capturing people’s daily lives. Today, they are traditional poetic compositions that allude directly to Christmas. Be that as it may, they are always linked to the lives of the people who lovingly bring them to life today.

Court songs

Hombre con laúd

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This hymn emerged in the 13th century and spread throughout Spain during the 15th and 16th centuries, during the Renaissance. It was a way of collecting the main events of a region that, as an oral tradition, was sung by its inhabitants. However, its origin did not focus solely on the rural environment, although some authors link it to the name, villa, and its inhabitants. Based on love and court themes, they were widely performed in the salons of the nobility and set to music by renowned authors.

In any case, these poems were very successful at the time and constituted one of the three main genres of Spanish popular music, together with Mozarabic cantigas and jarchas. The carols had a similar form to the old French virelai and rondo of the late 13th century. They seem to derive from the Italian villançete by Carvajales, a poet at the court of Alfonso V of Aragon the Magnanimous, and which is recorded in the 15th-century Cancionero de Estúñiga. They were also collected in the Cancionero General, de Palacio, de Linares, de Medinaceli, de la Colombina and de Upsala.

Niño Jesús

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Later they moved on to the religious cantatas that followed one another from the day of the Immaculate Conception to the day of the Epiphany, culminating in Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The songbooks were filled with carols thanks to notable authors such as Juan del Encina, Francisco Guerrero and Pedro de Escobar. Their Court origin, full of theatrical excesses, took its toll and they were banned from the temples, although they later returned to them. It was at this time that they reached the ordinary people. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they reached great sophistication and included choirs, soloists and stage performances. At the end of the 18th century they were merged with other genres such as the tonadilla, and later with the zarzuela. Later in the 19th century it became established as a Christmas genre sung in churches.

An ode to Christmas

The carol consists of hexasyllabic or octosyllabic verses distributed in a chorus, where the theme is announced. One or more verses, usually round, and one or more turns that through a linking verse repeat the chorus. One of the first carols is attributed to Mateu Fletxa el Vell, born in Prades in Tarragona. It was famous for its ensaladas, compositions for four or five voices designed for the enjoyment of the courtiers and in which different languages are usually mixed. In addition to the more traditional carols, there are some very popular regional ones that are sung in Galicia, such as Bo Nadal, in Catalonia, such as Santa nit or Rabadà, and in Andalusia, such as Corre corre al portalico. Unforgettable are also the Ay del chiquirritín, from Navarre, or the Hacia Belén va una burra, from Castile La Mancha.

Coro de villancicos

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Campana sobre campana, of Andalusian origin, Los peces en el río, with its Moorish influence, 25 de desembre Fum, Fum, Fum o Arre Borriquito, are good examples known all over the world. The White Christmas, sung by Bing Crosby, included in the book Record Guinnes for being one of the best-selling songs in history, deserves a special mention. It remained in the hit list for 72 weeks. Silent Night is today the most sung and popular Christmas carol in the world. It was created by an Austrian priest who had to compose a song that could be performed without the accompaniment of the church organ, as it had broken down. It was declared a World Intangible Cultural Asset in 2011.

Carols nowadays

Today, carols are a popular custom and one of the identifying features of Christmas, especially for children. Not so long ago we could see them carrying zambombas and tambourines visiting relatives and neighbours in search of the much appreciated aguinaldo (Christmas bonus) or at least a polvorón. Other instruments were the carraca, the bell or even the bottle of aniseed. The mortar, a metallic mortar used to crush spices or seeds, gave a very characteristic sound when struck, which perfectly accompanied the tune of the carol.

Una zombomba

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Unfortunately, it is now much more unusual to enjoy this tradition which has been relegated to shopping centres where its sweet melody accompanies shoppers. It should not be forgotten that some great performers have managed to put some Christmas carols on the charts. Mariah Carey and her All I want for Christmas is you, or Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra who many years before left their contribution.

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