Christmas Songs: History and Origin Story

How bland and grey would our Christmases have been, had there not been Christmas carols or songs? In most places of the world today, the playing of Christmas carols on the radio ushers in the festive season of Christmas. Those songs tend to put us in a very jubilant mood. The real question is where did they all come from? How and when did this tradition, which is so beloved by people across the world (religious and non-religious), come into being?

This article takes you back in time, to about 1700 years ago, and explains in precise details how Christmas songs were invented, as well as their evolution over the years.

Times of the Pagan Romans

Carols started thousands of years ago, long before there was any Winter Wonderland or even before the Little Drummer Boy came into being. A carol refers to a form of song that is jubilant and merry in nature. The word’s origin is from the French word ‘Carole’. A carol is typically complemented by a circular dance of praise and worship.

Carols were very common back in the early Roman Empire. It was not unusual to find the ancient Romans singing carols during their pagan festivals and rituals. One of such festivals was the Winter Solstice. The pagan Romans commemorated the shortest day of the year using this festival. That day (the Winter Solstice) was around the 22nd of December. They danced and made merry in circles often around stone structures. There was also a lot of drinking. The pagans had other festivals and carols that marked the beginning of the three other seasons of the year; however, the Winter Solstice was the commonest and grandest of them all. It spread the length and breadth of the Empire and into all of Europe.

Early Christians and Christmas Songs

As Christianity flourished, the church began to adopt some of the traditions associated with the Winter Solstice. Inclusive of this were carols. Also, the early Christians intentionally pegged the date of Jesus Christ’s birth around this period. This was done in order to gradually replace the pagan holiday with a Christian festival. Historically speaking, this was by no way the exact period of Jesus Christ’s birth.

By the time Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, the church had completed the adaptation of pagan rituals and carols into the Christian faith. Obviously, the Christians did away with idol worshiping and all the non-Christian connotations of the pagan carols. The new carols had Biblical and Christian themes of Bible figures, particularly those of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.  Also, the songs were generally sung in Latin. These songs were often composed by the clergies.

The earliest record of a Christmas carol dates back to 129 AD. It was inspired, perhaps written, by a Roman bishop for a service in Rome that celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ. The song was titled “Angel’s Hymn”. Another very influential carol was written by Comas of Jerusalem around 760 AD. This hymn-like song was intended for the Greek Orthodox Church. As early as the 4th century in Milan, Archbishop Ambrose penned down a Christmas Carol titled: ‘Veni redemptor gentium’. It translates into English as ‘Come, Redeemer of the nations’.

The Catholic Church continued to churn out several Christmas carols or hymns solely in Latin. As a result of this, Christmas carols did not get as much coverage in Europe because only a few people could read and write Latin at that time.

The Medieval Period

During the middle ages, a large section of the population was particularly not so thrilled about Christmas carols as a result of the language barrier. The songs were relegated to church services and to the homes of the elite and clergy that were fluent in Latin.

Furthermore, Christmas celebrations witnessed a significant drop year in year out. With this also came a decline in Christmas Carols. The few people who sang the carols were travelers (called minstrels) that moved from village to village singing the carols as a form of entertainment. Some of these travelers deviated from the original Bible themes of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Some started to make their own variations to encompass coarse and vulgar themes. By this time, it was purely an entertainment venture whose themes did not resonate well with some village folks. This continued for another century or so until the time of St. Francis.

St. Francis of Assisi revives the dying Carol tradition

In the 13th century, there lived a very devoted Christian by name Francis of Assisi. He was the kind of guy you go to when things did not seem to be smooth in your life. Among his many accomplishments included the revival of the Christmas carol tradition.

Francis made sure that the carols went back to contents of the Bible and the Christian faith. To top it all off, he asked that the carols be sung in the languages of the locals. Some of the choruses still stayed in Latin though. For his works on the Carol tradition, as well as many other sacrifices he made for Christianity, Francis would later earn sainthood and become the Patron Saint of Ecology.

As a result of all those measures taken by Francis, Christmas Carols were once again famous all across Europe. The minstrels stuck to Francis’s directives and went about delighting European towns after towns with their completely new religious carols. This also proved very useful in the spread of Christianity across Europe as well.

14th Century to 16th Century

Christmas songs and carols

The 15th-century version of Latin carol.

Around 1410, the carol about Mary and Jesus in Bethlehem made substantial waves across Europe. It must be noted that not all the stories in those Carols were factual. The minstrels and writers slightly based their songs on biblical stories.

In Italy for example, there was the Nativity Plays and songs in 1223. Soon, France, Germany, Spain and other European countries were singing these songs.

In 1426, John Awdlay became the first person to publish Christmas carols in English. Awdlay was a Shrophire chaplain. He came up with about twenty-five Christmas carols.  Many of the carols in the 15th century were either loosely based on Biblical stories or untrue stories.

The Latin language continued to appear extensively in Christmas carols way into the 16th century. Famous carols back then were “Christ was born on Christmas Day”, “Good King Wenceslas” and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”.

The Puritans Era

By the time the Puritans took control of England (around 1647), the commonest form of carols was termed as wassailing. Wassailing had incorporated a lot of mulled-wine drinking while the carols were sung. The Puritans did not approve of this because it reminded them of the unholy pagans in Ancient Rome.

Furthermore, Christmas songs experienced a sharp fall because the new Church of England, the Anglican Church, did not approve of it initially. They viewed Christmas songs as a deeply Catholic tradition with pagan roots. Hence, they campaigned for its ban. This ban came into effect post the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that ousted the Catholic James II. James’ replacement was his Protestant nephew, William of Orange (William III). During the reign of William III and his wife, Queen Anne, Wassailing and carol singing were forced to go underground; they were only done in secrecy among the village folks for about a century, give or take.

Watch this video on how Christmas caroling tradition started:

Christmas and Carols during the Victorian Era

Around the middle of the 19th century, when Queen Victoria was on the British throne, Christmas carols made another come back. Growing up, Queen Victoria’s Hanoverian mother, Princess Victoria (the Duchess of Kent), introduced the young Victoria to some elements of Christmas tree decorations and carols. Prior to that King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte, practiced a similar tradition during Christmas. The general public was yet to catch onto this tradition. They usually brought just a branch or a mistletoe into their homes on Christmas day.

Across the broader society, the practice of singing and merry-making during Christmas only became common after Prince Albert and Queen Victoria got married in 1840. The German Prince Albert brought a host of German customs that he openly celebrated during Christmas. One of the royal couple’s Christmas celebration involved bringing pine trees into their home at Windsor Castle and decorating it with candles, sweets, and gingerbread. And around this tree, the royal family and court sang Christmas songs. Victoria and her family can, therefore, be regarded as the first people to popularize the modern version of Christmas celebrations, trees, and carol singing.

On December 23, 1848, the Illustrated London News published an engraving of Queen Victoria in the company of her husband, Prince Albert, their (five at the time) children and Queen Victoria’s mother,  the Duchess of Kent.  Pictures of those nature made Christmas celebrations very popular again. With this came the several compositions of Christmas carols and hymns.

Queen Victoria and her family during the festive season of 1848

It was also during the Victorian era that the English author, Charles Dickens published his famous stories in books such as A Christmas Carol (1843) and A Christmas Tree (1850). These stories went a long way in reviving Christmas and Christmas carol in England. Most of Dickens’s stories sought to drum home the message of generosity and reconciliation.

Additionally, William Sandys and Davis Gilbert tremendously helped in propagating Christmas carols during the 19th century. The two writers went around villages and towns in England compiling a vast collection of Christmas songs from over the centuries. Most notable of them include: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, “The First Noel”, and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”.

Caroling and Candlelight Service

It was also around this time that Caroling came to being. Groups of people, almost like the minstrels of old, went from home to home singing carols. It was common for carols to be sung in the streets. Some even did this for free.

The Candlelight Service was birth around this period. On the eve of Christmas, people lit candles to commemorate the star that guided the wise men to baby Jesus in the Bible. In such cases, the carols were sung by the candlelight. Some churches started combining these carols with Bible readings. The most popular type of this arrangement was called: Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Today in the U.K., this service is broadcast live on BBC radio at 15:00 on Christmas Eve.

In addition to this, a host of private choir groups and orchestras sprung up from the traveling bands of minstrels. Some of the most famous Christmas carols we love in the 21st century were written in by those people during the Victorian era. Examples are ‘Good King Wenceslas’, ‘Jingle Bells’, and ‘O Holy Night’.

The lyrics in ‘Good King Wenceslas’ were written in 1853 by J.M. Neale, an Anglican priest and hymn writer. Neale contributed immensely to the translations of Latin, Spanish and Greek hymns. His most significant translation was Ambrose’s ‘Veni redemptor gentium’. He translated it into English as ‘Come, thou Redeemer of earth’.  Another famous carol of Neale is Good Christian Men, Rejoice (1853). He adapted it from the original that was called “In dulci jublio” (“In sweet rejoicing”).

By the 1850s and 1860s, all of those Christmas carols and caroling traditions had made their way across Europe and even all the way to America. In the U.S., The Christmas day became federally recognized as a holiday in 1870. In part, the transfer across the Atlantic was aided by Henry Ramsden and John Stainer’s publication titled: Christmas Carols, New and Old (1871).

Christmas Carols in the Early 20th Century

At the turn of the 20th century, Christmas and caroling had become very popular and lucrative for the printing, confectionery and jewelry businesses. The number of publications about Christmas carols also spiked. Charles Lewis Hutchins’ famous ‘Carols Old and Carols New’ was published in 1916. Another very famous publication was the ‘Oxford Book of Carols’. This book was published by the Oxford University Press in 1928.

The 1960s saw famous Christmas carol publications by composers such as Benjamin Britten and Richard Rodney Bennett. Christmas Carol was henceforth a big and important element of Christmas celebrations in Europe and America. During the festive seasons, Christmas carols permeated every facet of our lives and even all the way into space. For example, the Gemini 6 crew is believed to have sung James Pierpont’s famous Christmas carol, ‘Jingle Bells’, on their voyage in space on 16th December 1965. This meant that ‘Jingle Bells’ became the first Christmas carol to be sung in space.

The 20th century also saw the following hit Christmas songs dominate the airwaves:

‘White Christmas‘ by Bing Crosby in 1942;

The Christmas Song” (1961) co-written by Mel Torme and Nat King Cole;

Feliz Navidad’ (1971) by Jose Feliciano;

John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over)(1971);

and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”(1994).

Christmas Songs in the 21st century

In our current day, Christmas carols transcend all religions and cultures. The festival is no longer just famous among Christians. Nonbelievers and atheists also take part in this tradition. It has become ubiquitous because of the message it preaches. The entire spirit of Christmas today is about giving and sharing.

The carols have now become a universal language that speaks to people all over the world. We are blessed to live in a time where we could both enjoy the renditions of the old Christmas songs with modern ones like: ‘Santa Tell Me’ by Ariana Grande in 2014; ‘Don’t Shoot Me, Santa’ by the Killers in 2007; Justin Bieber’s 2011 ‘Mistletoe’; and ‘Do You Hear What I hear?’ by Carrie Underwood in 2007.

FAQs about the history behind Christmas songs

These key questions and answers provide a brief summary of the history of Christmas songs:

What are the origins of Christmas songs?

Christmas songs, also known as carols, have their origins in medieval Europe. They were not necessarily related to Christmas, but they were songs and hymns that celebrated the winter season. Over time, these songs became more associated with the Christian holiday and the birth of Jesus.

Which is the oldest known Christmas song?

FAQs about the history behind Christmas songs

“Jesus Refulsit Omnium” is considered one of the oldest known Christmas songs, composed by St. Hilary of Poitiers in the 4th century.

Where did the tradition of caroling door-to-door come from?

The tradition dates back to medieval times when poor individuals would sing in the streets for food or money, which later evolved into groups of people singing songs of good cheer in their communities.

Who wrote “Jingle Bells”, and was it originally a Christmas song?

“Jingle Bells” was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857. Interestingly, it was originally meant for Thanksgiving and was titled “One Horse Open Sleigh”. Over time, its association shifted to Christmas.

Is “Silent Night” based on a true story?

“Silent Night” was composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber with lyrics by Joseph Mohr in Oberndorf, Austria. While the song itself is a poetic representation of the birth of Jesus, its creation story is true, involving a broken church organ and the need for a song to be played on a guitar.

How did “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin become popular?

“White Christmas”, penned by Irving Berlin in 1942, gained immense popularity when Bing Crosby sang it in the movie “Holiday Inn”. Its nostalgic lyrics resonated with soldiers abroad during World War II and with people dreaming of a peaceful holiday season.

Why is “The Twelve Days of Christmas” so repetitive?

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song, where each verse builds upon the previous one. This style of song has its origins in folk traditions, where repetition would help with memory and group participation.

Are there Christmas songs from non-Christian traditions?

Yes. While many Christmas songs are rooted in Christian traditions, the holiday season is celebrated in various ways around the world. Songs like “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” come from the Jewish Hanukkah tradition, and there are secular winter songs that celebrate the season without a religious context.

Why do some Christmas songs mention “wassailing”?

Wassailing is an old English tradition involving singing and drinking to the health of apple trees to ensure a good harvest. “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and other songs incorporate this theme.

How have Christmas songs evolved over time?

While many traditional carols have religious themes and origins in ancient and medieval times, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen an explosion of secular Christmas songs. These often focus on themes of love, winter, festivity, and even humor. Popular music artists frequently release their own versions or entirely new Christmas songs, adding to the ever-expanding holiday music canon.

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