It wouldn’t be Christmas without music. Although midwinter celebrations have occurred for much longer, the traditional practice of singing religious hymns at this time of year has ancient roots spanning back at least 1,000 years.
Festive hymns began to rise in popularity around the 13th century, in the time of Francis of Assisi. The tradition began in Italy and spread westward throughout Europe. They were briefly banned in England in the puritanical republic days of the mid-1600s but were quickly reinstated with the reintroduction of the monarchy.
Some of the best loved hymns and carols have existed in some form for hundreds of years. Often with different lyrics over the same classic melody, they are sung in many different countries and languages. It’s hard to think of many other popular pieces of music that have endured so well.
Carols not only help us ring in the changing season from autumn to winter, but they add a sense of tradition to the way we celebrate. For many, they bring back some of the happiest memories of childhood and for young children, they amplify the magic of the season.
It’s fitting then that the best-selling single of all time should be a Christmas song. Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, first released in 1942, retains the top-spot having sold over 50 million copies worldwide.
We have put together a list of some of the oldest and most popular Christmas songs, hymns and carols to give a little history behind some of our favorite holiday music.
Twelve Days of Christmas (1780)
Let’s begin with an absolute classic. The "Twelve Days of Christmas" was first published in 1780 and is still as popular today. It’s played everywhere around Christmas time, on the radio, TV and in stores — you can’t escape it.
The original version of the song was a vocal chant without music and is thought to have originated in France.
The melody that we are all familiar with was adapted by English composer Frederic Austin in the early 1900s. It is based on a traditional folk tune and Austin also added the prolonged refrain of “Five gold rings.”
In case you are wondering, the "Twelve Days of Christmas" actually begin on Christmas Day and extend to January the 6th. There are many different opinions surrounding the significance of the lyrics. Some believe they refer to elements in the Bible, but it is equally likely the lyrics were intended for fun and have no deeper meaning.
O Christmas Tree (1824)
This song was first published in 1824, but is thought to be based on a 17th century central European folk song. The song was originally written in German and is entitled “O tannenbaum,” which means “the fir tree.”
The version most of us recognize was first arranged by German composer Ernst Anschütz. The song was not originally linked to Christmas though and is a story of an unfaithful lover. The author uses the fir tree’s evergreen characteristics as an example of dependability, in contrast to their fickle partner, “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, how faithfully you blossom.”
Anschütz added two more verses about how the fir tree brings cheerful feelings in the dreary winter months. At some point over the following centuries, this began to be associated with the Christmas season and the lyrics were changed to the version we know today.
God Rest You Merry Gentlemen (1760)
This is thought to be one of the oldest Christmas songs still popular today. The earliest known printed version dates from 1760, but the song is thought to have originated in England in the 16th century or earlier.
The term “god rest you,” which was commonly used in the 1500s, means may God bring you peace.
The first lines of the song are mentioned in Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" which was written in 1843.
Jingle Bells (1857)
This jolly Christmas classic was written by American songwriter and composer James Lord Pierpont. It was first published in 1857 under the name “The One Horse Open Sleigh.”
The original lyrics are the same as the version most of us know today. For such a festive song, they actually contain no reference to Christmas and center around the fun of a winter sleigh ride. It originally featured a very different chorus melody sung over a descending chord pattern.
"Jingle Bells" also has the impressive accolade of being the first song to be broadcast live from space. On December 16th, 1965, two astronauts on the Gemini 6 mission, Wally Schira and Tom Stafford, reported to mission control that they had spotted a flying object. It was travelling north to south in a polar orbit. They then performed a brief rendition of "Jingle Bells" on harmonica and bells.
Good King Wenceslas (1853)
Based on the life of Duke Wenceslas I, who lived in Bohemia from 911 to 935, "Good King Wenceslas" is a story of generosity and giving. Wenceslas heads out on a cold, snowy night to deliver food and fire wood to the needy.
The real Wenceslas was conspired against by his brother and murdered. After his death, he was considered a martyr and received sainthood. He was posthumously given the title of King by Pope Pius II in the 1400s.
The version of the song popular today was first published in 1853 by English writer John Mason Neale. He was given the gift of a rare song book from 1582 that contained the song "Tempus Adest Floridum." He used the melody and wrote the lyrics to Wenceslas for the upcoming St. Stephen's Day celebration, which falls on the day after Christmas Day.
Oh Come All Ye Faithful (1751)
The origins of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" are somewhat unknown. The original hymn has been credited to the 17th century King of Portugal, John IV, and an obscure branch of European Catholic monks among others.
The English language version was translated from the original Latin by Frederick Oakeley, a Catholic priest, in 1841.
It contains nine verses, four of which date from at least 1751 and five verses were added in 1851.
We Three Kings (1857)
"We Three Kings" was written in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins Jr., who was the rector of a Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He wrote the song to be performed at a pageant in New York City. The song proved so popular among his friends and family that he decided to publish it in 1863.
It was originally given the title of "Three Kings of Orient" and is also known as "The Quest of the Magi."
The song was written to be performed by a trio of voices. It consists of five verses and the middle three verses should be performed solo for each of the Kings, Gaspard, Melchior and Balthazar. The first and last verses are sung together.
Silent Night (1818)
"Silent Night" was composed in Austria by Catholic priest Joseph Mohr and school teacher and composer Franz Xaver Gruber. It's originally written in German and titled "Stille Nacht." The lyrics were taken from a poem written by Mohr in 1816.
According to legend, the song was first performed in the small town of Obendorf, Austria on Christmas Eve in 1818. It was accompanied by guitar, as the church organ had been damaged by recent flooding.
The song spread through Europe and into the United States with the help of travelling folk singers. Mohr’s name was forgotten over time and the popularity of the song meant it was often credited to famous composers. A document has since been discovered that credits Mohr as the author and dates the song to 1818.
The Obendorf church was repeatedly damaged by flooding and was eventually replaced with the Silent Night Chapel.
The song "Silent Night" was granted Unesco Cultural Heritage status in 2011.
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