The History of Christmas Carols

Hello again readers, herewith some  recent research on the fascinating history of Christmas Carols………

NB Hyperlinks to performances of Christmas Carols on Youtube are part of this blog. I recommend the reader takes in all the text first then comes back to follow links to the carol. You may have to wait for a few seconds to skip the adverts on Youtube, don’t forget the back navigation button to return to this blog

The word carol comes from the French “carole” which literally means song-dance. Songs at Christmas time go right back into pagan times as people danced around fires and possibly stone circles and  standing stones around the winter solstice and at the  changing of other seasons. As Christianity spread through Europe the church took over the solstice celebrations, usually on December 22nd and new Christian hymns in Latin were introduced. In AD 129 a Roman Bishop declared that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another early Christmas hymn was written in 760AD by Comas of Jerusalem for the Greek Orthodox Church. Soon after other Christmas hymns were created. Few people liked them as they were always written and sung in Latin. These early Christmas songs were not the songs of dances or praise and joy that we know today.  By the middle ages (1200s), most people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas at all.

This all changed when Francis of Assisi started nativity plays in Italy in 1223. The people in the play sang songs or canticles that helped to explain the story. The chorus to the songs was often in Latin but most of the play was performed in the local language so that all watching could join in and sing along. New carols then spread to France, Germany, Spain and to our country. The earliest of these new carols was written in 1410, about Mary and Jesus meeting people in Bethlehem. From this date on new carols were written very loosely based on the Christmas story. These were not sung in church. They were sung in homes or on the street, sung by wandering bands of minstrels. Popular carols spread around the country but sometimes the words could change.

In 1647 celebrating Christmas and singing carols was banned by the puritans during the Interregnum and did not return even when  the monarchy returned. Carols did survive as people sang them in secret. Carols as we know the today really took off in Victorian times. William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected music from villages all over England. Many new carols were written in Victorian times though the underlying music or melody was often borrowed from earlier times. New carol services were created in churches and singing carols in the street became popular. Behind every carol lies a story and here are just a few.

SILENT NIGHT is one of the most popular of all the Christmas Carols and rightly so. It also has an amazing place in history when it was sung on the Western Front on 24th December 1914. Many people think it comes from Germany but that is not correct. The words were written by a priest called Father Joseph Mohr in Mariapfarr in Austria in 1816 and the music was added by his school teacher friend Franz Xaver Gruber. This carol is one that is often sung without any music and there is a legend associated with this. The story goes that Father Gruber wanted the carol to be sung by the children of the village at midnight on Christmas Eve, as a surprise for the parents. In the middle of practising the church organ broke so  the children had to learn it accompanied by a guitar. They learnt it so well the guitar was not needed on the holy night! The words were originally all in German and it began “Stille Nacht!!, Heilige Nacht”. The song gained fame after being sung in concerts. In December 1831 it was performed by the Strasser family in Leipzig. It was first performed in the USA in 1839. The Rainer family sang Stille Nacht outside Trinity Church in New York. About this time it became the carol we know today with its familiar refrain. It was first translated into English by John Freeman Young in 1863. Today it is one of the most popular carols and one of the most recorded songs of all time.

GOOD KING WENCESLAS is a very unusual carol as it does not mention the familiar Christmas story at all though it does have a very Christian message of giving and receiving. It is also based on a very real person and is not just a simple story. This is also a very old story going back over 1000 years! Duke Wenceslas lived from Ad 907-935 in Bohemia, the modern day Czech republic. He was brought up as a Christian and learned to read and write. He proved to be a kind ruler and set up an education and a law and order system but life did not end well for Duke Wenceslas – he was killed by followers of Boleslav, his own brother. The actual story was first recorded by a Czech poet Vaclav Alois Svoboda in 1847. The poem was found by J M Neale who translated the original and backed it with a tune from a 13th Century Carol called “Tempus Adest Floridum”. The Catholic church made Wenceslas a saint for helping others and raised his status to a King. The carol mentions the Feast of Stephen. This took place on 26th December which we now call Boxing Day. If you visit Prague you can find a statue of Wenceslas seated on horseback.

Listen to 13th Century Carol Tempus Adest Floridum

DING DONG MERRILY ON HIGH – This is another example of an early and pre-existing tune matched up to new lyrics in more modern times. The tune dates back to the 16th Century and first appeared as a secular dance tune in a book written by Jehan Tabourot (1519-1593). The tune, Brane de l’Official, from Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchesographie, (1588), but was harmonized by Charles Wood. The words came from English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward. This carol was first published in 1924 in   the Cambridge Carol Book. It has an unmistakable rising and falling melismatic melodic sequence. It includes some words in Latin even though it is quite a modern hymn which could not have been sung in earlier times

HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING – this carol is unusual in that the words came first and the music we know today was added later. The words were the work of Charles Wesley, younger brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodists. The words set out in 1739 were intended to be sung to a slow and solemn tune. The carol we all know today was arranged by English musician William  H Cummings ( 1831-1915) who backed  the words with a Mendelssohn cantata composed in 1840. Said cantata was to commemorate the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press! The original opening line was NOT…  Hark the Herald Angels  Sing, it was “Hark how all the Welkin Rings!”, with Welkin being a word for sky or heavens”

Original Composition by Mendelssohn  of 1840 part 2 of FESTGESANG – “Vaterland, in deinen Gauen”

GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN – First published in 1833 by William B Sandys, it is actually much older than that but the author is unknown. The earliest known form is on a 1760 broadsheet (ballad sheet). It is the only carol reference by famous English writer Charles Dickens where it appears in has famous Christmas story “A Christmas Carol” in 1843;

“.at the first sound of ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’, Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”

There are a number of versions of this carol, with differing numbers of verses. It features the familiar Christmas story with Jesus Christ, an Angel, Bethlehem, shepherds, manger and oxen,  true love and brotherhood.

GAUDETE – A 15hr Century Carol sung in Latin – Thought to have been composed in the 16th Century but could easily be much older. Never heard this song in English, pity I really like it! Could just imagine this being performed in Tudor times, here is a brilliant version, and my favourite version from Steeleye Span…..


Sources for text – Wikipedia and..

Sources for music and video –





About bakersfieldlad

July 2015...... I published my first book on Amazon - "Savilles Spinnney". On April 1st 2015 I published my second book - "Arsenic Sally". Christmas Day 2015 I published my third book " Murder Mystery and Mayhem on the Railways 1830-1899. That's 3 books in roughly 18 months. I enjoy researching and see no reason to stop writing. There will be many many more books and while I would love to be taken in by a publisher I am content to make my books available via Amazon. Keep checking my blogs for updates about my upcoming projects......
This entry was posted in Carol, Christmas, Christmas Carol, Christmas Service, Ding Dong Merrily on High, God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, Good King Wenceslas, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, History of Carols, Ideas for writer, Silent Night, Writer, Writing, writing ideas, writing process and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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