There is not really a tradition in Spain for the type of Christmas carols that we know in more northerly parts of Europe. Some of those carols are known here and have their own Spanish versions, such as Venid Fieles (Adeste Fiedeles), Al Mundo Paz (Joy To The World) and Noche de Paz (Silent Night), but the real Christmas singing tradition here is based on a large group of songs called Villancicos.
The villancico was a popular form of poetry and singing in Spain, Portugal, and their colonies, for several centuries, starting in the second half of the 15th and continuing into the 18th. The style declined in popularity in more recent times and the term "villancico" gradually came to represent little more than a Christmas carol. (Well, perhaps carol isn't really a good translation, for songs such as White Christmas, Jingle Bells and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer are also referred to as villancicos. The more-encompassing term Christmas song might therefore be more appropriate.)
Despite, this degeneration, the medieval musical influence can still be gleaned in the villancicos that remain popular around the Christmas period. This is aided by the often medieval flavour of the music and its instrumentation, which still often consists of little more than a simple drum, a zambomba (a friction drum, or, in Dutch, a rommelpot), and some tambourines (panderetas in Spanish). In the Comunidad Valenciana, a dulzaina might also be used and in Andalucía, the villancico has become particularly popular performed in flamenco style, accompanied by guitars, castanets, hand-clpping and the cajón.
Villancicos are most often sung by groups of children (who, strangely enough, seem to have little musical ability) and this adds to the naivety of the whole. A glorious exception to this rule is provided by the flamenco performers of villancicos, who transform the simple songs into superbly exciting numbers: look out for a group called Raya Real in this respect.
So why not scrap the traditional carols this year and instead go for a more Spanish form of Christmas entertainment? You can find plenty of sites online where you can listen to villancicos, performed both well and badly, and lots of CDs are available in the shops, too, though these are of equally diverse quality.
Navidad Digital is a good place to start. Not only does the site offer many, many villancicos, it also allows you to hear carols in French, German, Italian, Latin and English. (In addition, you will find information about Belenes, recipes for traditional end-of-year fare, and hundreds of photos.)
And here is a short list of some of the more popular and traditional villancicos:
- La Marimorena
- Campana Sobre Campana
- El Burrito Dabanero
- Ya Viene La Vieja
- Los Peces En El Rio
- Arre Borriquito (Arre Burro Arre)
- Alegría Alegría
- Fum Fum Fum
- Rin, Rin
- El Chiquirritín