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The History Behind Five Popular Christmas Carols

Updated on March 8, 2018

Christmas time is here! The time of year when we put up the Christmas tree, break out the wassail and of course sing lots of Christmas carols! But have you ever wondered where that favorite Christmas carol came from? If you have then this hub is for you!

Painting of the Nativity by Guido Reni
Painting of the Nativity by Guido Reni | Source

O Come O Come Emmanuel

To this day no one is quite sure who penned this timeless carol. It is also difficult to determine exactly when it was written. One of the first known written records of this song is found in Germany in 1710.

The inspiration of this song probably lies in the O Antiphons. The Antiphons are liturgical songs used in worship in Catholic Mass and sometimes in Protestant Advent services. The seven O Antiphons are: Sapientia (Wisdom), Adonai (Lord, Lord, LORD) Radix Jesse (Rod of Jesse), Clavis David (Key of David), Ortens (Morning Star), Rex Gentium (King of Nations), and finally Emmanuel (God is with us).

Five of the Seven Antiphons make up the five verses of O Come O Come Emmanuel. They are Adonai, Radix Jesse, Clavis David, Orents, and of course Emmanuel.

For much of it's existence this hymn was sung in the language it was written in, Latin. It wasn't until it was translated into English in 1851 by J. M. Neale, who was an Anglican Priest, that it began to enjoy widespread popularity. We have been singing this beautiful and melancholy song ever since.

An Antiphon is a short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle. The O Antiphons are 7 antiphons that are sung for Mass between December 17th and December 23rd in celebration of Advent.

Created by Xavier Romero-Frias
Created by Xavier Romero-Frias | Source

The 12 Days of Christmas

There is a great deal of debate about the origins of this particular song. One version is that it actually began as a children's game called "Twelfth Night". It was a 'memories and forfeits' game'. In which a leader would say one verse and the players would repeat it. That verse would be repeated and another added and so on until someone made a mistake. Then that person would have to give a 'forfeit', such as a kiss or a sweet.

Another version is that this song is actually a secret code written by the Catholics to preserve their faith in Protestant England during the reign of the Tudors. Whether or not this is actually true is unsure. However the meanings assigned to each of the verses is quite nice and have become such a big part of this song that I will include them here:

The True Love signifies The Almighty God

The Partridge in a Pear Tree signfies Jesus Christ

The Two Turtle Doves signify The Old and New Testaments

The Three French Hens signify Faith, Hope, and Love

The Four Birds A Calling signify the Four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)

The Five Golden Rings signify the "Pentateuch" (the first five books of the Old Testament)

The Six Geese A Laying signify the Six Days of Creation

The Seven Swans of Swimming signify the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit

The Eight Maids A Milking signify the Eight Beatitudes

The Nine Ladies Dancing signify Fruits of the Spirit

The Ten Lords A Leaping signify the Ten Commandments

The Eleven Pipers Piping signify the Eleven Apostles

The Twelve Drummers Drumming signify the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles Creed


Still, snowy, Slovian night.
Still, snowy, Slovian night. | Source

Silent Night (Stille Nacht)

This hymn has it roots in the land of music, Austria. It was written in 1816 by a Catholic Priest by the name of Joseph Mohr. Two years later Father Mohr was working as an assistant priest in St. Nicholas, a church in the small Austrian village of Oberndorf (which is an awesome name!)

On December 24th of 1818. Yes, Christmas Eve. Father Mohr, approached Franz Xaver Gruber, a musician and the organist for St Nicholas. He showed Gruber the poem and asked him if he would be able to compose a tune for it on the guitar. Gruber agreed and that evening together they preformed 'Silent Night' for the very first time, to the great delight of their audience.

There is no real explantion for why Mohr decided to set his poem to music that particular Christmas Eve. One explanation that is commonly given is that the organ was not working,(destroyed by rust, or possibly mice) and they needed a song they could preform on the guitar for the evening service. Whatever the reason, people have been enjoying this song ever since.

As a side note it may be noted that Silent Night is often preformed on the instrument it was orginally written for; the guitar. I myself once preformed it on that instrument for my local church's Christmas Eve service. In keeping with the Silent Night tradition I also delayed practicing it until the very last possible moment!

Sheet Music of the original Jingle Bells then Called "One Horse Open Sleigh" written by J. Pierpont
Sheet Music of the original Jingle Bells then Called "One Horse Open Sleigh" written by J. Pierpont | Source

Jingle Bells

This song was originally called "One Horse Open Sleigh" and was written by a man named James Lord Pierpont, in the small Massachusetts town of Medford.

According to the book Boston Curiosities, Pierpont pinned this song in 1850 in the Simpson's Tavern in Medford, using the only piano in town. The song is said to have been inspired by the annual sleigh race from Salem to Pleasant Street in Medford.

The song was never intended to be a holiday song and doesn't even contain the word Christmas. It is said that the song was written for Pierpont's Father to use in Sunday School in celebration of Thanksgiving.

Because of his support for the Confederate cause in the civil war Pierpont moved to Savannah Georgia and became an organist for a church there. He wrote several popular songs for the Confederacy including "Strike for the South" and "Conquer or Die".

James Pierpont died in Winter Haven Florida in 1898 at the age of 72. We have been singing his "merry little jingle" ever since.

The Reformer, Martin Luther. Painted by Lucus Cranach in 1528
The Reformer, Martin Luther. Painted by Lucus Cranach in 1528 | Source

Away in Manger

As with so many of these Christmas carols it's exact origin is largely unknown. You may have heard that this carol come from the pen of the famous Reformer, Martin Luther. While this is a popular theory it appears to be a misconception as "Luther's Cradle Song' seems to appears no where in Luther's original writings.

Most sources agree that the carol was written by an unknown American author. The first two verses of this song first appeared in print in the Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families which was a Sunday School publication of the American Lutheran Church in 1885.

The third verse appeared in Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs, published in 1892. It was never attributed to an author but may have been the work of the books compiler, Charles H. Gabriel.

Though we still do no know the original author who we can rest assure that God will continue to use these words, to "bless all the dear children' for many years to come.

Bonus Carol! I Wonder as I Wander

This carol had a rather modern beginning. It was written in 1933 by a folk singer by the name of John Jacob Niles. He was inspired to write this carol one day when he was passing through the Appalachian town of Murphy North Carolina. He came upon a group of evangelists that had been thrown out of town. In this group he noticed a girl with dirty, ragged clothes, and long straggly hair. But this simple girl was singing. She sang only three lines, but she sang them beautifully. When Niles left there he had three lines and an inspiration. He composed the song we know today as I Wonder as I Wander in October of 1933 and preformed it for the first time that December.

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    • Sara Copley profile imageAUTHOR

      Sara Copley 

      2 years ago

      Thank you! I really appreciate it! I hope you have a very Merry Christmas!

    • Chantelle Porter profile image

      Chantelle Porter 

      2 years ago from Chicago

      Very interesting article. Shared.

    • Sara Copley profile imageAUTHOR

      Sara Copley 

      2 years ago

      Thanks! I am glad you enjoyed it! I'm hoping to get another Christmas history hub done soon. Thanks for commenting and I hope you have a Merry Christmas!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 years ago

      Thank you, a great holiday Hub. Will there be a part II?

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