30 Favourite Christmas Carols - Their Origins and History
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This article is devoted to 30 pieces of music which in many regards, have little in common. Some are less than 50 years old, while some are more than 500 years old. Some will be familiar to all who hear them, whilst others may be familiar to very few. Some are really quite sentimental, almost melancholic pieces, others are as jolly as can be. Some are routinely performed by classical orchestras and cathedral choirs, whilst some are within the repertoire of popular singers. Others are the favourites of little children.
But they do almost all have two things in common. First, these pieces of music will typically reflect aspects of the same story - the Christmas story. Second, these pieces of music are all, in the opinion of this author, among the most beautiful compositions ever created by mankind.
They are, of course, all Christmas carols, and this page is a personal selection of 30 favourites, presenting their histories and influences, with video performances.
Carols - The Linguistic Origins
The word 'Carol' is of rather uncertain derivation, but probably comes from the French word 'carole' or the Latin 'carula'. The original meaning of the word seems to have been a 'circle dance' - literally, a dance form in which participants moved in a circle to the accompaniment of music or song. These were folk dances, which were sometimes secular in nature, but sometimes they were performed in celebration of a deity or an event, and on festive occasions. Over time, the use of 'carol' to describe the folk dance was dropped in favour of using it to describe only the music, and within the Christian religion, the term was later developed specifically for songs of praise which celebrated the birth of Christ, usually with verses and with a repeated chorus.
Distinction between Carols and Songs
Every year at Christmas time we are regaled with festive and seasonal music - Christmas carols and songs. But what makes a piece of Christmas music a carol, as opposed to merely a Christmas song?
Of course the most fundamental rule would seem to be that a carol has a religious connotation related to the birth of Christ, and yet some pieces which today are usually thought of as carols actually relate to quite different events in the Bible, or contain secular themes, whilst other pieces which are usually thought of as pop songs may carry a clear religious message.
A second generalisation is that carols tend to be simple tunes with a regular beat and a chorus, designed to be sung in churches and by professional or amateur choirs, rather than by solo entertainers on the stage or screen. But again this is scarcely a hard and fast rule.
Finally, any music which has stood the test of time, may have a reverence bestowed upon it when described as a carol or hymn, which modern songs tend to lack; and yet some very beautiful, very modern songs could undoubtably be described as carols (and are so described on this page).
Perhaps one should not over analyse these things - although there are grey areas, most of us will recognise a carol for what it is, and most of us will enjoy the sound we hear.
The author of this article is not religious, so you may reasonably wonder why someone like myself is writing about and praising the beauty of Christmas carols which celebrate the birth of Christ? First, irrespective of belief, I can still appreciate the beauty of the Christmas story. And second, I can appreciate the beauty of carol music - songs which have come down to us through the ages and which are still sung and enjoyed today for their musical merit, as well as their religious message. Many of my favourite pieces of music are carols, and they can move me greatly. That is why I have written this page about the history of these songs.
History of Christmas Carols
The development of the Christmas carol has been neither a straight nor an unbroken course. Far from it. There have been at least four stages and influences in the development of the carol as we know it today.
Perhaps the first stage began before ever the Christian religion even came into being, for there have been songs and dances with a seasonal and a festive nature for as long as recorded history, and perhaps for much longer than that. These were celebrations of pagan belief which were sung by the ancient peoples of Northern Europe such as the Celts, and the songs celebrated many different occasions including the Winter Solstice in December. And certainly such songs continued among these native peoples long after the arrival of Christianity 2000 years ago, and they would later contribute to the development of the Christmas carol.
The second stage occurred with the emergence of Christianity, and the birth of the true Christmas song. As long ago as the 4th century AD, soon after the conversion of the Roman Empire to the new religion, Latin hymns of praise were already being sung. One such hymn was 'Veni redemptor gentium' - 'Savior of the Nations, Come' - composed by Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan. Christian music like this gradually spread to the limits of the Roman Empire to countries such as Britain, where it remained long after the Romans had left. It was, however, obscure and elitist music, because it was written in Latin, and therefore quite beyond the understanding of the majority of ordinary people. And that was pretty much how it remained for much of the next thousand years.
Pagan songs and ceremonies - the original 'carols' - continued to exist alongside these Latin Christian songs. But it was a rather uneasy relationship. Some of the old music and festivities were taken over by the new religion with words changed and updated to Christian beliefs, but the roots of this pagan music conflicted with church sensitivities and whilst sacred chants were considered acceptable, the more popular carols of pagan origin were not. As a result, at various times from the 7th century, religious councils forbade the singing of carols in church.
Then in the 12th century, the third phase in the development of carols began as the Church relaxed its attitudes. A Parisian monk called Adam of St Victor chose to merge popular songs and sacred themes once more. And it is said that in 1223 St Francis of Assisi, no less, played a role in the development of the Christmas carol with the performance of Nativity plays, which he popularised by presenting them in the local language of the people in his community, rather than in Latin. In one of these services he created a Nativity scene with live animals, a baby, and - of course - music. And this was lively, joyous music, quite different to the sacred chants so alien to ordinary folk. Fragments of one such song date from 1410 - the oldest surviving example of a carol as we would recognise it today. Travellers and minstrels began to circulate these 'new' songs throughout Europe. In England, a Shropshire priest later recorded 25 of these carols in popular repertoires which were sung by 'wassailers' - people who entertained in the streets by visiting houses and communally singing for a reward of gifts, or food and drink. (Originally wassailers may have sung pagan songs to drive away evil spirits, but in the Christian world, they became the forerunners of modern day carol singers.) One of the oldest songs from this time is 'The Boar's Head Carol', of 1521, traditionally sung as a boar's head was presented on the table at a Tudor Christmas feast.
Over the next few centuries, carols continued to grow in popularity throughout much of Europe, with new works being penned in Protestant churches, notably by Martin Luther in Germany. Other traditions still familiar today such as decorating 'Christmas trees' also began to develop. However in England, the future of the Christmas carol was still far from secure, and in the 17th century a new and very puritanical breed of Christianity under Oliver Cromwell once again tried to eradicate popular songs with pagan, and also Roman Catholic, origins from all celebrations - an attitude which influenced the early pilgrim communities in America too. This may seem a bit odd today, but many of the old festive activities such as wassailing had often involved drunken excess and less than totally sacred behaviour. And even when singing was once more legitimised after Cromwell's death, Christmas remained essentially a festive celebration of continental Europe, rather than in the English speaking nations.
England and America had to wait until the 19th century before the final stage in the development of the 'traditional' Christmas carol took place. In 1822 in America, the classic poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas' was written by Clement Moore. And in England, William Sandys and Davies Gilbert began collecting old Christmas music from around the country, and publishing new carols or new arrangements of existing carols including 'The First Noel.' Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria pushed for more liberal and festive European celebrations of Christmas in England, and the tradition of carolling appears to have had new life breathed into it at this time. Albert himself was serenaded by singers who knew of his love for this kind of music. The carol singing habit also spread to America. And in 1843, Charles Dickens wrote his famous story 'A Christmas Carol' incorporating many of the sentimental elements of Christmas so familiar today.
Even so, in England carols remained essentially a street and home entertainment until a book called 'Carols for use in Church', was published in 1875 with a preface by Sabine Baring-Gould, a Church of England priest. And John Stainer, organist at St. Paul's Cathedral in the 1870s, convinced the cathedral's choir to sing a carol each evening during the Christmas period. Then in Truro Cathedral Cornwall, on Christmas Eve 1880, the first full church carol service was finally performed.
The Christmas carol had at last become fully accepted both by the general public as a popular joyful and festive song, and by the church as a true hymn of praise.
The Carols on this Page
The carols on this page are very diverse. While most tell an aspect of the story of the Birth of Christ from Advent to Epiphany, some such as 'Good King Wenceslas' only relate indirectly to the Nativity, and are set in an altogether different period of history. And a few such as 'Joy to the World' are not truly seasonal at all. Many like 'The Holly and the Ivy', owe their origins to humble folk tunes or pagan rituals.
Some carols have been composed in their entirety by one author, but often the words and melodies have quite separate origins. Sadly, some carols are of unknown authorship, whilst others bear the mark of great classical composers, such as Felix Mendelssohn ('Hark! The Herald Angels Sing'), Gustav Holst ('In the Bleak Midwinter') and Ralph Vaughan Williams ('O Little Town of Bethlehem'). There are joyful carols such as 'God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen', there are gentle carols for children such as 'Away in a Manger', and there are reverential carols such as 'Silent Night'.
Several carols have more than one tune associated with them, and in at least three cases, the more popular melody in America is not the one most familiar in England. Perhaps because the author of this article is from England, the tunes I have grown up with and find most attractive and poignant, tend to be those of English origin. 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' is an example. All the carols are accompanied either by a video uploaded to this page, or by a link to a good quality YouTube rendition. One song (at present) includes a video slide show compiled by the author of this page.
Play all 30 and you'll have your own Christmas concert on Christmas Day!
In The Bleak Midwinter
This is my own slide show put together on YouTube to 'In The Bleak Midwinter'. The singer is Connie Dover - my favourite singer of traditional folk melodies and carols. The music is 'Cranham', the Gustav Holst setting of the carol.
1) In The Bleak Midwinter
In 1872 the poet Christina Rossetti wrote the words of 'In The Bleak Midwinter' in response to a request by the American 'Scribner's Monthly Magazine' for a poem in celebration of Christmas. Then in 1904, long after Christina's death, the poem was published in a collection of her works, and in 1906, the great composer Gustav Holst chose to set to music. The tune which Holst composed is known as 'Cranham', after the village in Gloucestershire in which he was living. In 1909 a second melody for the same carol was created by organist Harold Darke. Both versions became and remain very popular in Britain, and in 2008, a poll of leading choral experts chose the Darke version as the best Christmas carol ever written. I would respectfully disagree - not about Rossetti's words or the carol - but about the tune. For me, the Gustav Holst melody is perfect. It brings back the most evocative memories of my childhood as I trudged home from school in the snow, the welcoming lights in the houses, and my longing to get home to my mum's cooked supper, out of the dark and cold of the bleak midwinter. Even then this was my favourite carol, and 'In the Bleak Midwinter' remains for me the most beautiful carol of all.
2) The Holly And The Ivy
This traditional English carol is curious for the prominence the title gives to two plants which have no place in the Christmas story. And indeed one of those plants - the ivy - is scarcely even mentioned in the lyrics of the song! So why a carol about holly, and why is ivy even included in the title? Before Christianity, holly and ivy had long established roles in pagan rituals, and particularly in winter solstice festivities, perhaps because their evergreen leaves had symbolised continuity. One prominent ritual which involved both plants is believed to have been a singing contest. Men would perform songs which specifically extolled the virtues of the holly (considered a masculine plant) whilst women would perform songs which promoted the merits of the ivy (a feminine plant). And this rivalry between the two plants (or sexes) could then be resolved under the third very prominent evergreen of the winter season, the mistletoe (hence the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe). There is even a very ancient song called 'The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy' which refers to this battle of the sexes and their symbolic plants. The popular appeal of such pagan links between holly and ivy and the winter festivities made it difficult for the emergent Christian church to ignore. So instead it assimilated them into Christian ceremonies and Christian music, Which brings us to the carol 'The Holly and the Ivy'. The carol clearly uses holly as a metaphor for aspects of the Christmas story and the subsequent life of Christ. In the song the white of the flower is compared to Christ's purity, the red of the berry to Christ's blood, and the prickly leaves to the 'Crown of Thorns'. Fair enough. The carol may well have been based on one of those ancient pagan songs sung by the male sex - one which extolled the virtue of the holly. But what of the ivy? Why is that even mentioned in the title? The most likely explanation is simply that the link between holly and ivy was just too strong in popular culture for it to be completely omitted, even though its inclusion was irrelevent to the new Christian message. It was a throwback to the old pagan ritual. Whatever the truth, the carol's subsequent development is also sadly vague, and its author is unknown. One version of 'The Holly and the Ivy' is reported from 1710 which carries a first verse very similar to the modern lyrics. A manuscript from 1823 also mentions the carol. Most significantly, Cecil Sharp, a music teacher and avid collector of folklore and folk music, heard the carol sung by Mrs Mary Clayton of Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire in 1909. And Sharp subsequently recorded and published most of the lyrics and the beautiful melody we know today. The Holly and the Ivy
3) O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
The precise origins of this carol are unclear, and like 'The Holly and the Ivy', it is of unknown authorship. Undoubtedly however, this is one of the oldest of all carols, and is believed to have been derived from a set of Latin verses called the 'O antiphons' which were performed in monasteries around the 8th century AD. Each of these verses related the prophesy of the coming of the Messiah, and each referred to one of the titles of the Messiah. One referred to the Messiah as 'Emmanuel' as described in 'Isaiah 7:14', and it is believed that around the 12th century AD this text was adapted into a rhythmic poem, 'Veni veni Emmanuel'. The music which today accompanies the lyrics is thought to have been separately written for a 15th century Franciscan funeral hymn with influences from Gregorian chant. How and exactly when the words of 'Veni veni Emmanuel' became united with the funeral hymn is unknown, but certainly it had happened by 1851, when John Mason Neale translated the words from Latin into English (Neale was a prolific translator of hymns and carols from many other languages into English, as well as composing some carols of his own, including 'Good King Wenceslas'.) When Neale wrote the English language version of the carol, he titled it 'Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel', but later modifications of the text gave us the title and verses we know today. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
4) O Little Town Of Bethlehem
In the winter of 1865, Phillips Brooks, the rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, visited the Holy Land, and included in his itinerary was a horseback ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. Three years later, and inspired by this experience, Brooks composed the lyrics of this song, and his organist Lewis Redner was asked to add music so it could be performed by the church's children's choir at Christmas. Neither Brooks nor Redner really expected much more from their carol, but in 1874, the Reverend Huntington, the rector of All Saints’ Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, chose to publish it in his Sunday School hymn book, 'The Church Porch'. In so doing, he introduced the carol to a much wider audience. Gradually the song lyrics grew in popularity across the world, though a strong dichotomy in the choice of music to accompany the words would also develop. Redner's original tune known as 'Saint Louis' remains the music most often used for this carol in America. However, in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, the same lyrics are sung to a markedly different tune called 'Forest Green'. This is a melody adapted by Ralph Vaughan Williams from the folk song 'The Ploughboy's Dream', and named after the village in Surrey in which he first heard the song. It was published in the English Hymnal (a collection of hymns) in 1906. Another alternative tune was composed by H. Walford Davies in 1905, and called 'Wengen'. This less familiar version is performed most notably at the famous service of Nine Lessons and Carols in Kings College, Cambridge.
5) Away In A Manger
If any carol is particularly associated with children, then it is most probably 'Away in a Manger'. Certainly this is one of the first carols which I can remember as a child, and it is a song which remains popular because of its gentle melody and words. 'Away in a Manger' was first published as two verses by James R Murray in Philadelphia in the Lutheran song book 'Little Children's Book for Schools and Families' in 1885. The verses were subtitled 'Luther's Cradle Hymn', which has led to a common belief that they were actually written by Martin Luther himself, but it seems there is absolutely no evidence of this. A third verse ('Be near me, Lord Jesus') was added by John T. McFarland in 1904, having been originally written for another song by Charles H Gabriel in 1892. As with 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' there is a difference in choice of melody between America and the Old World. The music to which the lyrics are usually performed in America was composed and published by Murray in 1887 under the title 'Mueller'. But by far the best known version in England is a tune composed in 1895 by William J Kirkpatrick and known as 'The Cradle Song'. This is the version to be found here. Away in a Manger
O Little Town Of Bethlehem
The video is by THENBA (the Northern Baptist Association). This link takes you to their homepage on YouTube. The version they sing of 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' is set to the English 'Forest Green' melody - not the original Redner version, but the version with which I grew up, and which is my favourite.
6) Cherry Tree Carol
The tale this carol tells is clearly not the traditional Nativity story. Instead it speculates on Joseph's initially sceptical view of a miraculous virgin pregnancy, as he refuses to help Mary pluck cherries from a tree. Some have read symbolism into the tale, associating cherries with fertility, but it's not clear exactly how the story first arose. Most probably it derives from ancient Christian writings called the 'New Testament Apocrypha' and a text known as the 'Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew', which relates the story of a later flight by Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt. In this tale there is a scene where Joseph attempts to pluck fruit from a date palm - fruit which is tantalisingly out of reach. The carol itself has its roots in a 15th century work performed during the Feast of Corpus Christi, although the words have since been sung to a variety of different tunes. And the picture is confused by the fact that several other carols with similar titles and 'doubting Joseph' themes such as 'When Joseph was an Old Man', and 'The Cheery Tree' also exist. Indeed, 'The Cherry Tree Carol' as performed today, is believed to be a composite of three songs, set to a traditional English melody, and published in a collection of 305 Old and New World ballads by Francis James Child in the late 19th century.
7) A Thousand Christmas Candles
The majority of the carols on this page have English, American, German or French origins, but 'A Thousand Christmas Candles' is different. 'Nu tändas tusen juleljus' is a Swedish carol composed in its entirety by hymn writer Emmy Köhler in the year 1898. The beautiful melody and lyrics has made this one of the most popular of carols in Sweden, and led to it being translated into many other languages including, of course, English. A Thousand Christmas Candles
8) I Saw Three Ships
'I Saw Three Ships' is another carol like 'The Holly and the Ivy' with a strange title and strange symbolic references. The reference to 'ships' is not fully understood. An old interpretation of the original lyrics is that this refers to three genuine ships which took relics of the three wise men to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century. A more common interpretation is that 'ships' refers to camels - the 'ships of the desert' - and specifically the camels which were the mounts of the three wise men. As with many other carols, numerous variations have existed with different lyrics being composed in the different regions of England, which only serves to further confuse the origins of the song. It does seem however, that the carol derives at least from the 16th century. According to 'The New Oxford Book of Carols', the earliest printed version dates to 1666, at a time when the sea was a major part of the life of the nation. One author suggests the excitement and elation of a ship arriving in port after a long voyage, was analogous in the song to the excitement of the arrival of the Messiah. The carol is sometimes entitled 'On Christmas Day in the Morning.' I Saw Three Ships
9) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this carol is that neither lyric writer Charles Wesley nor melody writer Felix Mendelssohn, would have ever wanted their words and music to be married together in the way that they are! Charles was the prolific hymn writer brother of the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, and he wrote the lyrics in the year 1739. He originally called it 'Hark! How All the Welkin Rings, Glory to the King of Kings' ('welkin' is a word for the vault of heaven, the place where stars and angels dwell). In 1753, Wesley's colleague George Whitefield changed the title, cut some of the verses, and altered a few of the lines to produce the familiar modern lyrics which he published in a collection called 'Hymns and Sacred Poems'. Then, nearly 100 years later in 1840, the great composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote a tune for a cantata to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, and in 1855 after Mendelssohn's death, organist Dr William Cummings chose to use this melody to accompany the old lyrics of Wesley and Whitefield. Neither Wesley nor Mendelssohn would probably have welcomed this because Wesley had preferred a slow and solemn tempo to his religious music, whilst Mendelssohn had intended his upbeat tune to be secular. And yet this fusion of two very different visions has become one of the most popular of all carols, and indeed one of only two which is never omitted from the world famous Service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College Cambridge. (The other is the next on this list). Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
10) Once In Royal David's City
'Hark the Herald Angels Sing' (see above) is the recessional hymn played at the end of the Service of Nine Carols at King's College. The processional hymn is 'Once in Royal David's City', and a solo rendition of the first verse by a boy chorister has opened the service every year since 1919. The lyrics of this carol were written by Miss Cecil Frances Humphreys - a noted songwriter who composed more than 400 poems and hymns in her lifetime, including the well known 'There is a Green Hill Far Away' and 'All Things Bright and Beautiful'. In 1848 a compilation of her lyrics entitled 'Hymns for Little Children' was published, and included in the volume was 'Once in Royal David's City' (David's City is Bethlehem). One year later, Henry John Gauntlett set her words to music to produce the carol we know today. Most of Miss Humphrey's works were aimed at children with the intention of making the Bible easy to understand, and today her lyrics for this carol remain as popular as ever in school choirs. And her compassion was manifested in other ways too - Miss Humphreys, who later became Cecil Francis Alexander, wife of an Irish Bishop, would one day give the profits from all her hymn books to support disabled children in the north of Ireland. Once In Royal David's City
Cherry Tree Carol
This video by betahifi shows Judy Collins in performance singing 'The Cherry Tree Song'. Ms Collin's voice is perfect for this music, and many of her other Christmas songs, are to be found at betahifi's YouTube page dedicated to the singer.
11) The Huron Carol
The lyrics of 'The Huron Carol' may be the most interesting of any carol, though fortunately the origins of those lyrics are less obscure than some. Also known as 'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime' this is considered the oldest Canadian carol in existence. It was written in 1643 by Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary who had worked among the Huron Indians for many years. He wrote the lyrics of the carol in the Huron language, and although the lyrics have been amended since, it seems the intention was to make the Christmas story understandable to the Hurons (who had no knowledge of Palestinian lifestyles) by using analogies from their own lives and spiritual beliefs. Thus for the Hurons, Jesus is born 'within a lodge of broken bark', and wrapped in 'a ragged robe of rabbit skin'. He is surrounded by hunters instead of shepherds, and the wise men or kings are chiefs who bring him 'fox and beaver pelts' instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh. God is referred to as 'Gitchi Manitou'. In 1649, de Brébeuf was killed by Iroquois Indians who attacked and destroyed his mission. But some of the Hurons who survived the attack retained memories of the carol, and when they resettled at Loretto in Quebec, another missionary, Father Étienne de Villeneuve, wrote down the words and translated them into French. The English adaptation of the lyrics was written in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton, and the melody of 'The Huron Carol' comes from a French folk song, called 'A Young Maid'. The Huron Carol
12) The First Noel
'The First Noel' is a traditional English carol which dates at least to the 17th century, and possibly to much earlier than this. According to some, the melody may in fact be an ancient French tune, but the lyrics are undoubtedly English, probably from South West England. Originally the title was 'The First Nowell', but much later on this was changed to the French spelling of 'Noel'. The earliest publication which survives today is from 'Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern' edited by William B Sandys and Davies Gilbert in 1833. In their collection, Sandys and Gilbert arranged and added some lyrics and wrote down the melody to be used, and with some further amendments by John Stainer in 1871, this is the version we sing today. The First Noel
13) God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
'God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen' is of uncertain origin. It is believed to be one of the most ancient carols in this list, probably written more than 500 years ago, at a time when its exuberant tone did not go down well with church leaders who preferred more sombre devotional songs. However, our first record of the song is from an 18th century manuscript, and the oldest surviving publication is from 1833 in the same Sandys and Gilbert compilation as 'The First Noel'. From then on, the festive joy of the words and the rich melodic tone allowed the carol to grow hugely in popularity and at least two English sources from late Victorian times described it as the nation's favourite carol. Indeed, one special claim to fame is that this song is the only one mentioned in Charles Dicken's 'A Christmas Carol'. It is - in effect - the Christmas carol of the title. One final point of note concerns the much misunderstood title. The words 'Rest' and 'Merry' have both changed in meaning over the centuries. 'Rest' may have meant 'to keep', and 'merry' may once have meant 'strong' or 'mighty', as in the phrase 'Robin Hood's merry men'. (Both these original definitions are disputed). As far the comma is concerned, the natural assumption may be to place it between 'rest' and 'ye', but this would be wrong. It belongs after 'merry'. In other words, this is not about merry gentlemen being urged to rest! Depending on word interpretations, the title may be an assurance to the men that when they sleep it will be happy and peaceful because Christ has been born, or it may be seen as a reassurance that God will keep these men safe and strong through Christ.
14) O Come Little Children
This is the first German carol in this list, and it was originally written as a poem 'Ihr Kinderlein, kommet' by the Catholic priest and writer Christoph von Schmid in 1798. It was first published in 1811, and then again in 1818 in a collection called 'Flowers Dedicated to the Flowering Age' . Almost at the same time as Schmid was writing his poem, Johann Abraham Peter Schulz was independently creating a new melody called 'Wie reizend, wie wonnig' ('How charming, how pleasant') from a traditional tune of unknown origin. Sometime between 1830 and 1840, Schmid's poem and Schulz's melody were united in the Friedrich Heinrich Eickhoff songbook, 'Sixty German Songs for Thirty Pennies'. Today, the tune and the song have spread around the world, but different translations have led to a number of versions of the lyrics being performed to the music. O Come Little Children
15) Ding Dong Merrily On High
The melody of this very well known jolly song perhaps unsurprisingly began life as a secular tune in a 16th century dance book 'Orchésographie' written by Jehan Tabourot, a priest in the town of Langres in eastern France. He titled the music 'Le branle de l'Official'. 'Branle' refers to a circular dance, and it is believed that 'l'Official' refers to the servants quarters of a great house. If so the title implies that this was a dance for everyone including servants - not just the nobility for whom most dance tunes were written. Often as we have already seen, the words precede the music in the writing of Christmas carols, but in this case the lyrics are very much more recent than the tune. They were written by English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward and published in 1924 in 'The Cambridge Carol-Book: Being Fifty-two Songs for Christmas, Easter, And Other Seasons'. Woodward was a man with an interest in rearranging and presenting old tunes such as 'Le branle de l'Official', but also a strong interest in church bell ringing - so perhaps it was inevitable that the lyrics of 'Ding Dong Merrily on High' should come from his pen. Ding Dong Merrily on High
God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
Pinkbutterfly555's video of 'God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen sung by the choirs of Bath and Winchester Cathedrals, is one of the best YouTube renditions, and features a selection of charming picture postcard images of Christmas scenes.
16) Silent Night
This is probably the most famous carol of all, and certainly the carol with the best known story surrounding its origins. That story however, may have been much embellished and mythologised over the years. In 1816 Pastor Joseph Mohr wrote the words of 'Stille Nacht' as a poem in Mariapfarr, Austria. Two years later, Mohr had moved to the Church of St Nicholas in Oberndorf, and according to the legend the organ in this church crucially broke down - on Christmas Eve of all nights! Music was desperately required for the Christmas Mass, so Mohr suddenly thought of his two year old poem, and gave it to his friend Franz Gruber, Gruber, a local schoolteacher and composer, was struck by the beauty of the words and he immediately sat down and composed a melody for guitar, rather than church organ. Remarkably, the melody was completed in time for the Midnight Service, and so was born on the eve of Christmas, the carol 'Silent Night'. Unfortunately the real truth might be a little less romantic. Neither Mohr nor Gruber ever revealed the details of the song's creation, and the broken organ story comes from much later in America. It may simply be that Mohr had specifically requested a guitar accompaniment instead of organ instrumentation for his poem. Whatever the truth, the song took off, first in Austria where a singing family called the Strassers performed 'Stille Nacht' at a Leipzig concert in 1832, and then in America, where the Rainer family performed the carol outside Trinity Church in New York City in 1839. Two decades later, John Freeman Young published an English translation of the German original. Then in December 1914, 'Silent Night', already a popular carol, took on a new sentimental edge during the first Christmas truce of World War One. It was, it seems, one of the few carols which both English and German soldiers knew, so as the guns fell silent for an all too brief period, the strains of 'Silent Night' filled the air instead. Silent Night
The carol 'Torch!' or 'Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella', comes from the Provence region of Southern France. First published in 1553 by Émile Blémont, this ancient carol was originally a dance song, the melody of which possibly dates even further back to the 14th century. The carol tells an off-beat fictional tale associated with the Nativity in which two milkmaids, Jeanette and Isabella, go to milk their cows one day in Bethlehem, and they find the baby in the manger. They run to inform the townspeople and everyone gathers (with torches) to take a look for themselves. They have to watch very quietly to avoid disturbing the baby - hence the distinctive repeated refrains which begin with 'Hush!, hush!', 'Torch!' was translated into English in the 18th century by organist Edward Cuthbert Nunn, and today the carol is as popular in English speaking countries as in France, where re-enactments of the scene still take place annually in Provence, with villagers dressing up as shepherds and milkmaids carrying torches.
18) Mary's Boy Child
'Mary's Boy Child' is one of the more recent songs in this list, yet very much fits into the categorisation of a Christmas carol. It was written in 1956 by Jester Hairston, a versatile actor, songwriter, arranger, and choral conductor. (He appeared in more than 50 movies including 'In the Heat of the Night', and 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and wrote more than 30 film music scores including 'Lilies of the Field'). Jester Hairston was also the grandson of American slaves, and he was dedicated to preserving Negro spirituals, and the history behind them. After writing 'Mary's Boy Child' the song was quickly taken up by Harry Belafonte and recorded on the album 'An Evening with Belafonte'. The song was released as a single and only reached No 12 in the American charts, but in the United Kingdom, it became a huge hit, topping the charts for 9 weeks in 1957. Many others have since recorded the song, including Nat King Cole, Jim Reeves and Tom Jones, and the classical singer, Kiri Te Kanawa. Boney M's version in 1978 became one of the UK's best selling singles ever, whilst a Scandinavian version topped the Swedish charts in 1979. However, I still believe the origiinal is the best, and it is Belafonte's rendition which is linked to here. Mary's Boy Child
19) The Calypso Carol
On the face of it this may sound the most exotic of carols, conjuring up images of the tropical palm fringed Caribbean islands - a very different image from the traditional snow-bound winter scene of the Nativity. But really the carol's title refers only to the tempo which is typical of West Indian calypso. An English musician and hymn writer, Michael Perry, wrote the song in its entirety in 1964 for a carol concert at Oak Hill Theological College, at which he was studying. That might possibly have been the end of it, had it not been for the well known British pop star Cliff Richard who was hosting a radio broadcast and looking for a replacement song for a missing record he had wanted to play. He happened upon 'The Calypso Carol', and the exposure the song received on the radio led to it being included in a Christian song book called 'Youth Praise'. The calypso tone was embraced by the West Indian island of Nevis in 1983 which printed the chorus on a set of Christmas stamps, (Nearby St Kitts had honoured 'Mary's Boy Child' in a similar way.) And in 2005, the popularity of the song was such that it was voted one of the nation's ten favourite carols in an opinion poll conducted by the British religious programme 'Songs of Praise'. Calypso Carol
20) We Three Kings Of Orient Are
This carol arose out of the desire to write something new for a Christmas pageant in New York City. John Henry Hopkins Jr, was a man of many talents - author, illustrator of books, designer of stained glass windows, and a clergyman. He was also the musical director of the General Theological Seminary in New York, and it was his job in 1857 to organise the music for the New York pageant. He set to work and produced several compositions, of which the most inspired creation was the music and the lyrics for this carol. It was first published about six years later in a collection called 'Carols, Hymns and Song', and it's believed that this carol subsequently became the first purely American carol to have been published in England. We Three Kings Of Orient Are
This video is by jineaster91 and features the Riga Dom Cathedral Boy's Choir from the Baltic State of Latvia. They are singing 'Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.'
21) O Come All Ye Faithful
Evidence about the history of this very famous carol is conflicting, which makes it difficult to ascertain the truth. Dealing first with the lyrics, at various times the original words of the carol have been attributed to the Franciscan Order of monks and the 13th century Italian theologian Saint Bonaventure, and to various authors from the 14th to the 17th centuries. A royal author has also been proposed - namely Portuguese King John IV, a noted musical patron and composer. (According to one source, the hymn was briefly known as the Portuguese Hymn, as it was frequently played during the visits of the King's daughter Catherine of Braganza to England in the mid-17th century, during her courtship of her future husband, King Charles II). Other suggested authors have included the composers Handel, Gluck, and Thomas Arne. However, it must be said that the evidence for any of these is very limited, and there is no clear proof of the existence of the lyrics before the middle of the 18th century. At this time, a noted Catholic hymn writer and supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie's rebellion against King George II of England fled across the sea to France to escape fears of persecution. His name was John Francis Wade and around the year 1743, he wrote down the lyrics of four verses of 'O Come all ye Faithful'. He wrote in Latin, and the hymn was named for the opening words of the first verse, 'Adeste Fideles’. It was first published in 'Cantus Diversi' in 1751. What was the purpose of the hymn? A belief has developed that 'O Come all ye Faithful' was in reality a coded show of support for the Catholic Jacobean cause in England, and that the song was actually imploring 'the faithful' to come to the aid of Prince Charles. Whatever the truth of that, John Francis Wade is now seen as the most likely original author of these four verses. The authorship of the melody is also very unclear; Wade may have composed the music too, although a similar tune also appears in a contemporary comic opera by French composer Charles Favart. Samuel Webbe, a colleague of Wade's, published the music and Wade's Latin verses together for the first time in 1782. Four additional French verses were later penned by Abbé Étienne Jean François Borderies and others. The definitive English text dates to 1841, when John Francis Wade's four verses were translated into English by Reverend Frederick Oakley, who called the carol 'Ye Faithful, approach ye'. The four additional French verses were then translated by William Thomas Brooke in 1885. Thus was created the great choir carol we know today. (If readers wish to learn more about the history of this carol, the 'The Hymns and Carols of Christmas' website gives perhaps the most authoritative account to be found on the Internet). O Come All Ye Faithful
22) Come All Ye Shepherds
This is another carol of rather vague origin. It is undoubtedly Czech, but there is no direct evidence of the song in old compilations of Czech music. Most commonly it is associated with 'Nesem vám noviny', an old folk song. One source has it that the tune dates to 1605 when it was known as the 'Bohemian Christmas Song'. All that is known for certain is that the German composer and arranger Carl Riedel made the carol popular in Europe by publishing a version in his collection of 'Old Czech Songs for Mixed Choir' In 1870, under the title 'Kommet Ihr Hirten' which translates into the English language as 'Come, All Ye Shepherds'. Full translation of the text into English was by Mari Ruef Hofer in 1912. The version to be found here is in the Indonesian language! Sorry about that, but it was the nicest video I could find, so I hope you find it interesting. Come All Ye Shepherds
23) O Christmas Tree
Evergreen plants have had associations with winter festivities for as long as history records, symbolising eternal life and reliability. And the decorating of trees and the bringing of evergreen leaves and branches into the home, have been customs of many religious and ethnic groups including Druids, Jews and early Romans. And it was perhaps inevitable that these customs would be adopted by Christianity. In German speaking nations in the 16th century, the tradition developed of bringing very small fir trees inside and decorating them on the table next to a Nativity scene (the very first Christmas tree is apocryphally attributed to Martin Luther). This habit was later brought to the New World by German immigrants. Then, around the mid 19th century, Prince Albert's love of Christmas festivities gave the royal seal of approval to Christmas tree decoration - the result of which was the prominence which the tree has throughout the Western world in Christmas celebrations today. And of course this evergreen aspect of the festivities would often be celebrated in song, though as in the case of 'The Holly and the Ivy', the carol which evolved around the Christmas tree actually has little to do with the Nativity. Apart from the use of the word 'Christmas' there is no mention of the Biblical story at all. It seems 'O Christmas Tree' derived from a 16th century folk song 'Ach Tannenbaum' by Melchior Franck. New lyrics to the folk song were written by Joachim August Zarnack in 1819, with more lyrics added in 1824 by Leipzig organist Ernst Anschutz. The words have further changed in numerous versions over the years, (including four non-carol versions used as the state songs of Maryland, New Jersey, Michigan, and Iowa) and the title has also undergone variations such as 'The Christmas Tree,' 'O Faithful Pine,' 'Oh Tree of Fir,' and many others.
24) Deck The Hall
'Deck the Hall' is the finest example on this page of a carol with clear melodic roots to its traditional form as described in the section 'Carols - The Linguistic Origins'. This was music originally designed to accompany a dance - perhaps a circular dance of a secular or pagan nature. Dancers would perform in a ring around a harpist, and there would be friendly rivalry as they made up verses to sing on the spur of the moment. The intervals between the verses would be filled with the harp refrain. And if there was no harp or other musical accompaniment available, then it was necessary to fill the intervals in some other way; hence the introduction of the repeated nonsense lines 'Fa la la la la ...' which would form such an integral part of the lyrics of many songs such as this. The melody of 'Deck the Hall' is believed to come from North Wales, where it was originally known as the 'Nantgarw Flower Dance'. Although the tune is ancient, the earliest surviving manuscript is by the Welsh harpist John Parry Ddall in the 18th century. Towards the end of the 18th century, it reached the ear of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who used it in his Sonata No18, and almost at the same time, it was also presented in accompaniment with a 'New Years Eve' song entitled 'Nos Galan', published in Welsh in 1784 and in English in 1794 in Edward Jones's 'Musical and Poetical Relics of the Welsh Bards.' Between 1862 and 1874, the modern lyrics of 'Deck the Hall' made their first appearance in John Thomas's 'Welsh Melodies with Welsh and English Poetry'. Soon after this, the song moved across the Atlantic, appearing in the 'Pennsylvania School Journal' of December 1877. In both 'Nos Galan' and in the modern lyrics, there is no reference to Christmas - only to the seasonally associated time of New Year, and the traditions of yule logs and holly. Even so, this has become one of the best loved of carols. One final point - should the title be singular or plural? The original title does seem to be 'Deck the Hall', and the change to 'Deck the Halls' seems to date only to the 20th century. Deck the Halls
25) Go Tell It On The Mountain
A very different carol is 'Go Tell it on the Mountain', one of a number of spirituals which were included by John Wesley Work Jr in 'Folk Songs of the American Negro', a book published in 1907. Work was a professor at Fisk University in Nashville, and he compiled his collection to preserve the music of African Americans from the slave days. Some believe the song was actually composed by Work's father, Frederick Jerome Work, but the concensus view is that 'Go Tell it on the Mountain' was first written by a slave and had been sung by slaves or ex-slaves at least since 1865. The song did take on a different life in the 1960s when the great folk group Peter Paul and Mary rewrote some lyrics to turn it into a civil rights anthem, and it has become a popular song with children too. These diverse themes mean the song has been sung in a wider range of settings than almost any other 'carol' including concert halls and schools, on protest marches, and of course in churches. Go Tell It on the Mountain
O Christmas Tree
This video is by NorthPoleChristmas and features the popular song, 'O Christmas Tree'. Of special interest are the lyrics which emphasise the 'faithfulness' and eternity' of the leaves of evergreen plants - a staple theme of the appeal of the evergreen conifers, hollies and ivies of the winter season, and their role in many traditional customs.
26) It Came Upon The Midnight Clear
The lyrics of this carol were written as a poem in 1849 by Edmund Sears, the Pastor of the Unitarian Church of Wayland, Massachusetts, and it first appeared in print in the 'Christian Register' in Boston on 29th December 1849; it was one of the earliest American carol compositions, and destined to become one of the most popular. Two melodies have been used to adapt the poem to a carol. One simply known as 'Carol', was composed by Richard Storrs Willis, a music critic on the New York Tribune, and a student of Felix Mendelssohn. 'Carol' was written just one year after Sears's poem, and is the better known tune in America. The second melody was adapted by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) from an English tune in 1874. It was called 'Noel,' and this is the more common accompaniment in the United Kingdom. Here on the video, the tune 'Noel' can be heard, but the uploader of the video, '1finch2finch', has had the bright idea of also providing a link to the alternative 'Carol' version after a few seconds of play time. It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
27) The Christ Child's Lullaby
'Tàladh Chrìosda' ('Christ's lullaby'), also known as 'Tàladh ar Slànaigheir' ('The Lullaby of our Saviour'), is a Scottish carol from the Outer Hebrides, originally composed in Gaelic by Father Ranald Rankin of Fort William, and published in 1855 for the children of his parish to sing. It seems to have been something of a parting gift, as Father Rankin was departing for Australia that same year. The carol was sung to a tune called 'Cumha Mhic Àrois' - 'The Lament for Mac Àrois' - said to have been written by the bereaved lover of the heir of Aros on the Island of Mull who had sadly drowned in a local loch. The song became known as 'The Christ-Child's Lullaby' through the performances of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser, a popular singer of Scottish songs in the early 20th century.
28) Come Rejoice
Christmas Carol composition is not just a skill from times gone by. Many talented musicians are still producing new carols to enjoy. Judy Collins is one such artist. Best known as a folk singer, Judy has been creating great music since the 1960s, And in 1994 she produced her first Christmas album. It was called 'Come Rejoice!', and it is a pleasure to introduce one of several new songs composed for this album. To the best of my knowledge, the title track has not been recorded by any other artist to date, and should not be confused with other songs of the same or similar titles, such as 'Come on Rejoice' and 'Come and Rejoice'. Come Rejoice
29) Joy To The World
Isaac Watts, one of the most prolific of all English hymn composers, published the words of 'Joy to the World' in 1719, but without intending it to become a Christmas carol. At this time, it was a belief of the Puritan tradition that only the Biblical psalms should be sung in worship - human compositions were not worthy to be compared with these 'divine pieces'. But some - including Watts - felt that the psalms were not at all easy to sing. They could be said to be dreary. 'Joy to the World' was Watt's adaptation of Psalm 98 to turn it into a popular, singable hymn. Initially he chose to title it 'The Messiah's Coming and Kingdom', and it was published in 'Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament'. The tune 'Antioch' to which the words are usually sung, was added to the lyrics of Watts in a collection of hymns put together by the American church musician Dr Lowell Mason more than a hundred years later in 1839. 'Antioch' contained a brief notation 'from Handel' leading to the belief that the the tune was at least partially based on a theme by the great composer Handel, though it seems most likely that the primary composer was Lowell Mason himself. And his combination of this tune and Isaac Watts's words has made 'Joy to the World' one of the most familiar of all carols. Joy to the World
30) Good King Wenceslas
This is an unusual carol because it tells a story far removed from the Era of Christ. Indeed, more than 900 years removed. It speaks of the 'good king' who braves appalling weather to give aid to a poor peasant on 'The Feast of Stephen' (Boxing Day). In so doing, the carol conveys a message of charity and Christmas kindness towards our fellow man. The real life figure on which the carol was based was not, in fact, a king, but rather Wenceslas (Vaclav in Czech), who was Duke of Bohemia between 907 and 935 AD. According to the chronicler Cosmas of Prague writing in the 12th century, this privileged man had regularly given alms to widows, orphans and prisoners. Sadly, Wenceslas's life ended when he was assassinated by his brother, but after his death he was viewed as a martyr and canonised for his piety and goodness. He subsequently became the patron saint of Bohemia. The melody is believed to be a 13th century Scandinavian tune, later set to a spring carol called 'Tempus adest floridum' ('Spring Has Now Unwrapped the Flowers'), which was published in 1582 in Finland in a collection of 74 songs for children. In the 19th century, composer John Mason Neale received a copy of this from Queen Victoria's envoy in Stockholm, and in two volumes of 24 songs, he created new carols from the music it contained. For 'Tempus adest floridum' Neale decided to ignore the old lyrics and instead chose to commemorate Wenceslas with lyrics which may be be a loose translation from a Czech poem by Václav Alois Svoboda. These lyrics did come in for criticism from some who regarded them as 'poor doggerel'. However, the lively old tune, the good natured lyrics, and the imagery of a man trudging through snow to do festive deeds, have all helped to make this carol a favourite with many. Good King Wenceslas
The Christ's Child's Lullaby
This lovely rendition of 'The Christ Child's Lullaby' is sung by Kathy Mattea, the American country and folk singer, and uploaded to YouTube by themaineman2001
Wikipedia List of Carols
For all these carols Wikipedia's pages have been used for research in addition to specialist pages. Wikipedia's pages have been found by the author to be informative, and in some cases rather more accurate than many independently produced web pages. Authoritative and interesting web pages about specific carols are referenced opposite. A full list of Wikipedia carols with links to their pages of description is included here. Wikipedia's List of Carols
Please feel free to quote limited text from this article on condition that an active link to this page is included
References to Pages About the 30 Carols
- The Holly and the Ivy - Meaning Behind a Curious Christmas Carol
- O Come, O Come Immanuel - Christian History Magazine
- The Cherry-Tree Carol - Scéla
- The First North American Christmas Carol
- First Nowell named Carol of the Year - Niu News
- God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen - StoriesBehindChristmasSongs
- Silent Night. The history of a famous carol
- Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella - Windows Toward the World
- Marys Boy Child, the Song and the Story
- We Three Kings of Orient Are - Chuck (HubPages)
- O Come, All Ye Faithful - CBN.com
- The story behind the carol: O come all ye faithful - Telegraph
- O Tannenbaum - O Christmas Tree
- Christmas Songs - Go Tell it on the Mountain
- The story behind the song - Go Tell It on the Mountain
- King Wenceslas of Bohemia - Suite101
Cds of Christmas Carols Featured Here
My Music Pages
- Connie Dover - Composer and Singer of Traditional Songs
This page promotes the talents of one of the finest performers of traditional songs in the world, and the composer of some of the most beautiful music of recent decades. (In my article above, Connie Dover sings 'In the Bleak Midwinter').
- The Folk Song Greensleeves
This page relates the history of one of the most famous songs in the world of music, and one of the most ancient too - a melody which also provides the author of this page with his username
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