Origins of Popular Christmas Carols
Christmas carols are a part of Christmas tradition—they have been for hundreds of years. Some of the popular carols have fascinating origins and intriguing stories behind their creation.
The charming tune of these carols has remained in the hearts of those who have listened to their melody since the time Christmas was celebrated by singing their merry lyrics in the snow-covered streets of London.
Popular Christmas Carols
- "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen"
- "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"
- "Jingle Bells"
- "Deck the Halls"
- "O Christmas Tree"
- "The Little Drummer Boy"
- "Carol of the Bells"
- "Silent Night"
- "The First Noel"
- "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
1. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen"
The composer of this very old carol is unknown. It possibly originated sometime in the 16th century, with waits bands that travelled round London singing in taverns. There are records of it being sung within the Christian Church since the 15th century, but the hymn was first put into print in 1760.
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" was first published by William B. Sandy, he included a version of it in his publication Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern 1833. The song is a joyous hymn telling the birth of Jesus. Its popularity spread throughout Europe and reached America.
The words in this carol carry a different meaning in old English than present day English.
- Rest- to make or keep
- Merry- prosperous, or great and mighty
The 15th century church did not allow joyous songs in church. Peasants, waits, and watchmen sang Christmas songs in the streets of Jolly London town. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" was a popular one for folks to be singing as they walked the streets of London. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is one of the oldest carols; at possibly five centuries old, it is an enduring melody that is a favorite during Christmastime.
2. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"
"We Wish You a Merry Christmas" is a 16th-century west country English carol. The original author remains unknown. It passed down from carolers orally for centuries before it was recorded. The poor, commonly children, would sing to the wealthy in hopes to receive handouts or rewards. In the 16th century, Christmas carols and singing door to door was banned by the church, but in the 19th century caroling became popular once again. Carolers would wait at door steps until they received treats, they were called “Waits” by the Victorian English wealthy.
Caroling was popular during the Victorian Era of the 19th century. It was an English tradition that wealthy people of the community gave Christmas treats to the carolers on Christmas Eve, “Figgy Pudding,” being a common one. Figgy pudding is a traditional English Christmas dessert, the term “Figgy Pudding" was coined by the carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” The poor time carolers sang the lyrics as such, “Now bring us some figgy pudding”, “We won’t go until we get some, “So, bring it right here.” We Wish You a Merry Christmas is one of the few songs that mentions “and a Happy New Year.”
3. "Jingle Bells"
The popular Christmas song Jingle Bells was written by an x-confederate soldier, and southern sympathizer, James Lord Pierpont in 1850. Inspired by the annual one- horse open-sleigh race on Selem and Pleasant streets between Medford Square and Malden square. The place the lyrics were originally written has been disputed. Debat in Medford Massachusetts and Savannah, Georgia, both have claimed to be the songs origin. It was most likely, although it has not been verified, that the song was written for his father’s Sunday School class for Thanksgiving, then sung again at Christmas time. It was thought of at the time as a “A Merry Jingle.”
Originally named “one horse open sleigh,” "Jingle Bells" was first published in 1857. Less-known versus of the song included picking up girl’s and snow drag racing, “go it while your young.” The exact date he took pen to paper is a bit of a mystery.
The lyrics of the original versus were sung like this:
Dashing thro’ the snow,
In a one-horse open sleigh,
O’er the hills we go,
Laughing all the way;
Bells on bob tail, ring Making spirits bright,
Oh, what sport to ride and sing
A sleighing song tonight
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,
Jingle all the way;
Oh! What joy it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh
A day or two ago
I thought I take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune see’ed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we, we got up sot
Jingle Bells has definitely remained an all time favorite for the Christmas season.
4. "Deck the Halls"
Deck the Halls originally comes from the Welsh winter song called “Nos Galan,” which is about New Year’s Eve. The melody dates back to the 16th century. It was first published with English lyrics in 1862, in the Welsh Melodies, Vol. 2, featuring Welsh lyrics by John Jones and English lyrics written by Thomas Oliphant.
Thomas Oliphant was a songwriter, and author by writing new lyrics to old melodies, and interpreting foreign songs into English. He was a lyricist for the court of Queen Victoria. The Welsh lyrics for “Nos Galan” sang of the impending New Year, but Oliphant’s composition in English sings the onset of the Christmas holiday. He converted the Welsh tune to a Christmas song, and added decoration and merriment to the versus.
This line of lyrics mentioning drinking was revised: “Fill the mead cup, drain the barrel” The original Welsh lyrics sang of winter, love, and cold weather:
Oh! How soft my fair one’s bosom,
Fa la la la la la la la la
Oh! How sweet the grove in blossom,
Fa la la la la la la la la
Words of love, and mutual kisses,
Fa la la la la la la la la
The modern version of "Deck the Halls" is the one published in the 1866 songbook titled The Song Book, at that time the carol was titled “Deck the Hall.” The famous Christmas Carol eventually became "Deck the Halls."
5. "O Christmas Tree"
"O Christmas Tree" was inspired by a German folk song. “O Tannenbaum” that was written in Germany in the mid-1500s. It has been rewritten many times. The first known Tannenbaum song lyric date back to 1550.
In 1615, the song by Melchoir Franck sang the hymn with a different name to the lovely tree:
“Oh Pine tree, oh pine tree, you’re a noble twig! You greet us in the winter, the dear summer time.”
There is numerous versions of the lyrics. The best-known version of a Tannenbaun song was penned in 1824 by Ernst Gebhard Salmon Anshutz. He didn’t refer specifically to a Christmas tree:
“Oh fir tree, Oh fir tree how faithful are your branches.”
The song was about fir trees; it became the Christmas tree in the 19th century. The folk song may have referred to beautiful trees, but it has since become a carol of Christmas that sings of a Christmas tree and how green its branches are.
6. "The Little Drummer Boy"
Originally titled “Carol of the Drum,” this carol is believed to have been written by Katherine K. Davis in 1941. The song was based on an old Czech carol about the birth of Jesus Christ and the gifts presented to the Newborn King. Originally a Czech lullaby by Miss Jakubickova, the English words were added by Percy Deamer in 1918 for the official Oxford Book of Carols. The lyrics were then changed by Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941.
In 1958 Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone re-arranged the song re-titled "The Little Drummer Boy." There has been controversy over who the composition and written lyrics should be credited to, with the names Jack Halloran, Onorati, Simone, and Katherine Davis coming up. The song was jointly credited to Henry Onarati, Harry Simeone and Katherine Davis in 1959. "The Little Drummer Boy" is a timeless carol, with the beating melody of the drum taking it’s place in the classical tradition of Christmas.
7. "Carol of the Bells"
This captivating melody began as a Ukrainian Bell Carol. "Carol of the Bells" was composed by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych in 1914 with lyrics by Peter J. Wilhousky. The song was based on a Ukrainian folk chant called “Shchedryk.”
The tune was sung by Ukrainian villagers welcoming the New Year. This traditional Ukrainian folk chant celebrated the season of rebirth and hope of a prosperous New Year. Leontovych and J. Wilhousky transformed the tune into a Christmas carol. This carol has a place in the classic tradition of Christmas.
8. "Silent Night"
On Christmas Eve 1818, the carol “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht” was first heard in the village church in Oberndorf, Austria. What makes this carol unique is that it was originally written as a poem. The Christmas carol was composed for a guitar to be used in an evening mass. "Silent Night" has since been translated into hundreds of languages.
"Silent Night" was written by Joseph Mohr in 1816, a young priest assigned to a pilgrimage St. Nicholas church in Mariapfarr, Austria. It is unknown what inspired Joseph Mohr to compose the poetic version of "Silent Night." Two years later, the church organ was not working; according to legend, mice had damaged the organ, rendering it unusable before Christmas. Mohr decided his poem might make a good carol for his congregation for the following evening at their Christmas eve service.
On December 24, 1818, Joseph Mohr asked his musician—schoolteacher Franz Gruber, who lived in an apartment over the schoolhouse in nearby Arnsdorf—to add a melody and guitar accompaniment to his poem so that it could be sung at Midnight Mass. Gruber and Mohr sang their new composition.
Karl Mauracher, master organ builder and repairman, traveled to Oberndorf to work on the organ. Gruber tested the instrument with the soft carol. Mauracher was so impressed with the tune he took a copy of the composition home to Alpine village, Kapfing. After that, it spread throughout Europe as the “Tyrolean Folk Song,” and made its way around the world. The lyrics have since been changed to the popular version we know today.
9. "The First Noel"
"The First Noel" was first published in 1823. This carol is possibly French or English in origin. It has been speculated that the lyrics of "The First Noel" possibly originated from mystery plays. Mystery plays were dramatizations of biblical stories; Jesus’s birth was a popular one to be told by singers, writers and musicians.
Hundreds of these mystery plays took place in France and England. It has been thought that “The First Noel” was created out of these productions. There is evidence of this carol in France during the 15th century, but it may have originated possibly as early as the 1200s. By the 1800s, it became popular in England.
William Sandys added words to the carol; the first-time music and lyrics were published together in the 1823 Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. "The First Noel" is the most mysterious carol on this list in its origins. It is one of the most endearing carols of Christmas, and truly a touching retelling of Christ’s birth. The word Noel originated from Latin, meaning birthday.
10. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"
This popular Christmas song was written for the film Meet Me in St. Louis. It was written by songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blain. Judy Garland sings the Christmas song in the 1944 film.
It's truly beautiful to hear Judy Garland sing this Christmas melody. Hugh Martin nearly discarded his original creation of the song. Martin worked with the tune for three days and then threw it away. Blaine had been listening and thought it was too good to throw away. “We dug around the wastebasket and found it,” Blain said, “Thank the Lord we found it.” They worked on the lyrics together, but the first draft was to sad for Judy Garland to sing. They eventually wrote the version seen in the movie, and the merry tune was an instant success. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is now a popular Christmas song.