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The beginnings of Christmas music and a few evergreen Christmas Carol favorites

Updated on December 19, 2013

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

St Francis of Assisi


Christmas would definitely not be the same without carols and caroling, Not hearing these being played would mean that something is really amiss.

The best memories many of us have of the season are going house to house, regaling those around with festive sounds and bringing the holiday cheer that everyone has waited for over the entire year.

Yes, Christmas would not be the same without the carol. But how many of us have looked into how Christmas music came to be or thought about the origins of the musical renditions that many of us have become so familiar with?


The definition of Christmas music

In the broadest terms, Christmas music encompasses a wide variety of genres of music, especially so these days. From the old Church carol to the the pop and hip hop favorites of today, I would say that there cannot be too narrow a definition of Christmas music.

Why? Like all music, it is subjective and all of us appreciate so many different tunes. However, this article will deal with the ones we are very familiar with and their historical backgrounds.


A history of Christmas music

The birth of Christmas Music

Since time immemorial, music has always been a feature of the Christmas season and celebrations. Early chants, litanies and hymns were intended for use, as many of us know, as church liturgy rather than as the popular songs we all know today.

The evolution of Christmas music and the carol

Under the gentle hands of St. Francis of Assisi

The 13th century saw the rise of the carol under the influence of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1223, he started Nativity Plays in Italy. The actors in these plays sang canticles that told the story of the Nativity. These were sometimes in Latin, but were more often in the language that the audience could understand and appreciate. The carols slowly evolved and spread to many European countries in different languages.


The earliest carols

In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with music and called them “carols.” The word later came to mean a song referring to the nativity, with the festive element that we are familiar with.

The earliest carol was written in 1410. Only a small fragment of it exists, but it was about how Mary and Joseph met different people in Bethlehem. Most carols from this time are based upon the Christmas story and were perceived as entertainment rather than religious songs.

Prohibition by the Puritans and revival

The custom of going from home to home and treating others to the renditions of these songs began in earnest every yuletide, as the season came to be known. However, when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647, the celebration of Christmas and singing was stopped, those these carols were sung in secret.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, 2 gentlemen, William Sandys and Davis Gilbert began collecting old Christmas music from villages in England. Hence began the revival of the Christmas carol. Singing of the Christmas Carol, led by popular local leaders like council men, became hugely popular. New carols, like Good King Wencelas, were written during the Victorian period.

The custom of going from house to house during each Yuletide and singing these festive songs in the streets once again saw a rise in popularity. Services by candle light began and the the carols many of us know today, composed in fervor.


Silent Night Boyz to Men Acapella

Some of our favorite Christmas Carols

And so, we come to some of the carols that we are so familiar with today. As you read on, please join in the singing and dance in a circle if you want to!

Silent Night

An Austrian composition by none other than the young priest Father Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber, this has got to be the most familiar carol to all of us. First performed on Christmas Eve in the parish of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Father Joseph had already written the lyrics in 1815 before coming to the little town of Salzburg a year later.

Father Joseph brought it to Gruber and asked him to compose a simple guitar accompaniment for a church service.

The original manuscript of the song has been lost. In 1935, a handwritten manuscript by Father Joseph was discovered and shows that he wrote the lyrics in 1816, with the melody composed by Gruber in 1818.

Enjoy this rocking acappella version of Silent Night!


O Holy Night Mariah Carey

Oh Holy Night

A melody composed by Adolf Adame in 1847, it was an accompaniment to the poem Minuit Christens (Midnight Christians) by Placide Cappeau. Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight , the editor of Dwight’s Journal of Music, then created the singing edition. All texts refer to the birth of Jesus and Mankind’s redemption.

Over the decades, the song has been recorded by many an artiste, including Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey and Bing Crosby.


The First Noel Susan Boyle

The First Noel

A traditional classical Carol, likely from the 18th century or earlier, Noel comes from the French word meaning “Christmas” and the Latin word “natalis” meaning birthday.

The current form of the carol we know today is Cornish in origin, first published in Carols Ancient and Modern in 1823. The version most often performed is written by John Stainer, an English Composer, and first published in Carols New and Old in 1871.


It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

This is a poem and Christmas Carol written by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland Massachusetts. The words are usually set to one or two melodies, “Carol”, composed by Richard Storrs Willis or Noel, adapted from an English melody.


Hark the Herald Angels Sing Carrie Underwood

Hark! The herald angels sing

This carol first appeared in 1739 in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems composed by

Charles Wesley. Stoic, he requested and received serious music for his lyrics, not the joyful tune that we know today.

The tune we are familiar with is a result of alterations notably by George Whitefield, who worked closely with Wesley. When Felix Mendelssohn composed a canata to commemorate Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, the music from the cantata, adapted by William H Cummings, was set to Wesley’s lyrics and became the carol we know today.


What Child is This David Archuleta

What Child is This

A popular carol written in 1865 by William Chatterton Dix. He wrote it in a time of depression after being struck with a near fatal illness as the poem The Manger Throne. Three verses of it were taken and set to the English tune Greensleeves, which we know today.


Oh little town of Bethlehem Jewel

O Little Town of Bethlehem

This popular carol was first written by Phillip Brooks, a priest and rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity. He was inspired by his visit to Bethlehem in 1865. His organist, Lewis Redner, later added the music.

In the Episcopal Church, the hymn tune Forest Green is used instead, an English folk ballad composed by Ralph Williams. Another version by H Walford Davies is a popular version performed widely by many choirs.


Joy to the World The Acapella Company

Joy to the world

The lyrics to the popular carol are by English hymn writer Isaac Watts, based on Psalm 98 of the Bible. It is a hymn glorifying Christ’s triumphant return at the end of the age rather than a song celebrating his initial coming. The second half of Watt’s lyrics are the ones we are familiar with.

Lowell Mason set these lyrics to music in 1839. The refrain appears in Handel’s recitative Comfort Ye from his Messiah. The first four notes also match the beginning of the choruses Lift Up Your Heads and Glory to God.

As of the late 20th Century, this tune is the most published Christian carol in North America.


When a Child is born Andrea Bocelli

When a child is born

A popular Christmas song, the melody was Soleado, a tune by Ciro Dammicco. The lyrics were written a few years later by Fred Jay. It refers to the birth of Jesus Christ and the tiny star the “lifts up way up high” refers to the Star of Bethlehem. The most successful version of the song is the one by Johnny Mathis in 1976.

Copyright Michelle Liew Tsui-Lin All rights reserved

Which is your favorite Christmas carol?

See results


All these carols were composed with one aim in mind-spreading the message of love, hope and peace that is the true essence of the Yuletide season. May we always enjoy them in this light!

Your favorite Christmas Carols in a CD


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    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Jamie!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Suzette!

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 

      7 years ago from Reno NV

      Merry Christmas! Jamie

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Very interesting hub about the beginnings of Christmas music. I remember when I was a child singing carols was a custom and especially on Christmas-Eve. Miss those days! Thanks, midget!

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 

      7 years ago from Taos, NM

      Beautiful musical hub, Michelle. I loved listening to this also. I love the St. Francis of Assisi prayer and I knew he had started the nativity plays but didn't realize he started Christmas carols. Such a wonderful telling of the history of Christmas carols. I so enjoyed reading and listening to this one! Merry Christmas to you and yours!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      Wow! Nice to know that your contribution to the Salvation Army was being recognized. I'm sure you sang very well indeed. Please say hello to your wife for me and I absolutely had to mention all started there! Thanks for coming by and sharing!

    • Kasman profile image


      8 years ago from Bartlett, Tennessee

      I really enjoyed this hub. This was amazing! I'm very grateful for the Christmas Carols! My wife and I actually were on the news recently for singing carols while ringing bells for the Salvation Army. Someone thought we had decent enough tunes to call the news on us. My wife is from Italy so I love that background you threw in about that as well. Very beautiful and appreciated. Voted up!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      No worries, Richard. That would indeed be interesting! The one I can think of that comes close is Santa Baby. Will think of these! Thanks for coming by!

    • rcrumple profile image


      8 years ago from Kentucky

      Michelle - Sorry again for being late. Still trying to catch up ... slowly. This is a great hub filled with information I had no idea about. As I was reading the mention of many genres, it suddenly hit me that I can't think of hardly any Christmas songs in the "Blues" genre. One or two maybe that lend themselves to humor, but, just not many. It seems that this would be a strong time and topic for them, since so many are alone or away from loved ones this time of year. Just a thought. Great job!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Sherry, thank you. Just being a bit nostalgic...for it is the season! Thanks for sharing!!

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      8 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Beautiful song choices. I love when hubs about music have links in them so you can listen to the music. And the look of it really is quite beautiful. The colors in the lovely photos are repeated it the adorable dividers. You've done a fantastic job here.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      Glad to bring a bit of Christmas cheer. Thanks Vinaya.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 

      8 years ago from Nepal

      I had no idea about this topic.Thanks for educating me.

      Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

    • mizjo profile image


      8 years ago from New York City, NY

      Thanks, Michelle. I'll try that in the next hub.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Mizjo! Yesiree, there's no Christmas without the music! Thanks, Mizjo for listening to these carols. As for the dividers, you google the type of image you want, eg. reindeer clipart dividers. You'll usually be brought to sites that have these dividers.Right click "copy image address". Then, create a photo capsule. Paste the copied image add into the "import photo" section and import it. It will appear. :-)

    • mizjo profile image


      8 years ago from New York City, NY

      This is really beautiful, Michelle. I love your arrangement of the hub, with the gorgeous images, the history of each carol, and a rendition of each one. Very well done.

      I have been wondering for a long time, but didn't want to ask, how do you make your paragraph dividers? I don't think it's in the Forum, or did I miss it?

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore


    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      The older carols really add to the Christmas atmosphere....and emphasize what Christmas is really about. Thanks for sharing, Audrey.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Ruchira.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Jo!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      Ah, yes, always hard to get the boys to sing. Thanks for sharing...and Hark the Herald Angels Sing is one of my favorites too. Thanks for coming by, Jools.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      St Francis intended Carols to be a channel of peace. And he started it through plays. Thanks for coming by, Bill!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      It's my favorite too, Linda. There's no Christmas without the music! Thanks for coming by!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      There's no Christmas without music, Vicki! Thanks for stopping by.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      8 years ago from San Francisco

      Great hub and wonderful music. Thank you.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      8 years ago from California

      I love the older carols! Thank you Michelle!

    • Ruchira profile image


      8 years ago from United States

      Such an informative hub, Michelle.

      I loved it.

      Sharing it across!!!

      Merry Christmas

    • Lipnancy profile image

      Nancy Yager 

      8 years ago from Hamburg, New York

      I remember going Christmas caroling. It was such fun. Now you only see it in movies.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 

      8 years ago from Lincolnshire, U.K

      Michelle, a wonderful Christmas hub, very evocative, loved the history. Great job.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools Hogg 

      8 years ago from North-East UK

      I love Hark The Herald Angels Sing, I never get tired of hearing it and it reminds me of the last concert at Christmas in school, the only one at which the boys sang for some reason - nice and loud!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 years ago from Olympia, WA

      That was fascinating! I had no idea St. Francis was instrumental in the history of carols. Great stuff here, Michelle, and sharing.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 

      8 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Hi Michelle! You've created a very festive hub filled with many christmas memories. Thank you!

      Silent Night is my favorite. It's a beautiful, serene song.

    • Victoria Lynn profile image

      Victoria Lynn 

      8 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Beautiful hub! You listed so many of my favorite songs. The photos you used are gorgeous, too. Very nice!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      Hi Janine, thank you. Christmas isn't the same without these songs, though they are so familiar to us. Good to know where they come from!

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      8 years ago from New York, New York

      Thanks for sharing the origins here and really didn't know much other than actual songs. So thanks seriously for enlightening and educating me here. One thing I can totally agree with here is that Christmas wouldn't be the same without these beautiful songs and carols. Have oc course voted way up and shared, too!!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      8 years ago from Singapore

      On the history of Christmas music and some of our all time favorite Christmas Carols.


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