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The History of Christmas Carols

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Christmas would not be Christmas without Christmas Carols. The familiar tunes and words take us all back to the Christmas celebrations of our childhood. Thanks to the popularization of Christmas music during November and December, everyone has a favorite Christmas carol (or a least favorite).  Christmas carols seem to unite people wherever they go…from church congregation to a high school choir or community band striking up Christmas Carols in a shopping center or town square, onlookers and patrons are drawn to sing along to the old familiar words.

People have sung carols in Europe at the winter solstice for millennia. Today we’ll take a look at some of our favorite Christmas carols and dive into the history of where those tunes came from.  

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One of the first true Christmas carols was called ‘Angels Hymn’, and was sung at a Roman Christmas service in 129AD. The first Christian Christmas carols were sung in Latin, the language of priests and scholars rather than that of the ordinary people. In 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi instituted Nativity plays in Italy, which partly told the nativity story in songs and canticles. Nativity plays were largely performed in the audience’s own language, allowing audience members to join in on the music. These carols spread throughout Europe.

Most early carols were for home entertainment rather than for singing in church. Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan government banned Christmas carols seeing them as part of a sinful, pagan celebration. People sang them secretly in their homes. In Victorian times, William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected traditional old Christmas music from English villages, where it had survived.

‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ was one of the Christmas Carols collected by Sandys and Gilbert an put into “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” which published in 1833. Its lyrics are old English and thought to date to the fifteenth century, although it may be older and its author is unknown.

‘Silent Night’ is a widely popular carol with multiple renditions by both pop and country music artists. Its gentle melody and beautiful words make it a favorite for families throughout the holiday season. Over 180 years old, ‘Silent Night’ was written by Father Joseph Mohr and Choirmaster Franz Xavier Gruber. The original tune, “Stille Nacht! Herlige Nacht!” was  accompanied by a guitar as part of the midnight mass on Christmas Eve in Oberndorf, Austria. Since then, the beautiful Christmas carol has spread around the world and has been translated into many languages.

‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ is a carol thought to have originated in sixteenth century France. Its words were originally Latin, hence the gloria in excelsis deo, meaning glory to God in the Highest, which is the only survival of the original Latin words. The upbeat tune makes this classic carol a favorite for children to learn and share on Christmas morning. 

For music dating back over a hundred years, one of the most festive traditional Christmas carols is ‘We Wish you a Merry Christmas’. The carol’s author and composer are unknown, but historians believe that it dates back to the sixteenth century and describes the ancient English custom of wassailers, or carol singers, singing at wealthy houses in exchange for Christmas treats. The request to bring us some figgy pudding refers to the modern Christmas pudding.

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‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ or Adeste Fideles was originally a Latin hymn written in the early eighteenth century and not intended to be a Christmas carol. The holly and the ivy referred to as part of the lyrics are a pagan tradition dating back more than a thousand years. Although it seems that it may be an unusual survivor from pre-christianity, it is a British custom to bring holly and ivy indoors at the winter solstice or Christmastime. Like these two hardy plants the carol survived.

Not all Christmas tunes are actually intended as Christmas Carols. For example, the ‘Wassail Song’ is a traditional song celebrating the New Year rather than Christmas. Wassail is an old English word meaning a toast similar to Good Health. It can also mean a drink of spiced mulled wine used to drink such a toast. The carol’s author and composer are unknown, as is the age of the carol, but wassailing traditions date back to the twelfth century.

Christmas carols remind us that Christmas was not always the commercial celebration that it is now. They take us back to the simpler, more innocent time. Carols are part of our shared history. They remind us of the true meaning of Christmas and provide a real sense of togetherness around the holidays.

For another holiday tradition that is fun for the whole family, check out How to Host a Stress-Free Gingerbread House Party.


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I am a father of three and my wife is a registered nurse specialized in children.

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