back to top

    Our Advent Calendar 2022. Day 4: The difference between carol, pastoral and Christmas song

    Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

    At Christmas time, whenever we turn on the radio, we hear Christmas songs. However, there is quite a difference between a carol, a pastoral, and a Christmas song, which is why we listen to each of them at different times. Do you know the difference? 

    The Christmas season is dominated by joy and, of course, joyful music. From the beginning of December, practically every radio station or shop plays popular and familiar Christmas songs. 

    Carols and pastorals, on the other hand, start to be listened to much later. This is related to the meaning of these songs and the tradition. 

    Beautiful and religious

    Carols we are all familiar with are religious songs that carry the theological content about Christ’s coming into the world. Carols are church songs celebrating Christmas and we sing them from the midnight mass on 24 December – Pasterka (English: the Midnight Mass) – until 2 February, the Feast of Candlemas.  

    The story of pastoral

    A carol tells of the Lord’s birth, while a pastoral is more about what accompanies Christmas, i.e., mood and customs. A pastoral is a shepherd’s song concerning the subject of Christmas and is also a stage play with such content.

    The Universal Dictionary of the Polish Language (PWN) edited by Stanisław Dubisz (Warsaw 2003, vol. III, p. 383) explains the meaning of pastorałka even more clearly. Namely, it is a Polish folk song with carol motifs or a vocal-instrumental piece on the theme of Christmas.

    A pastoral is a song related to the Christmas tradition but can be sung at any time. We can do it at our discretion during the upcoming Christmas season and sometime after Christmas. A pastoral used to be called a simple shepherd’s song.

    It’s worth remembering, if you didn’t know it before, that the phrase pastorale, or ‘song with carol motifs,’ is not the same as the word carol. So, it is also rather unacceptable – even in colloquial Polish – to speak of a pastorałka as a ‘variety of carol’ or a ‘type of carol.’

    Christmas music

    A Christmas song, on the other hand, is a secular song about the atmosphere concerning the Christmas season. It comprises a variety of genres of music and might be instrumental or include motifs such as Santa Claus, winter, presents or even Christmas love. Many songs simply have a winter or seasonal theme or have been adopted into the canon for other reasons.

    More in section