Among the popular worldwide celebrated festivities, not too many influence our listening as much as Christmas. During this holy season, the whole world is exposed to a never ending list of beautiful Christmas hymns and carols, which may be wholly instrumental or include lyrics with themes ranging from the Nativity to giving gifts and merry making.
In this post, we shall take a look at the origins and meanings of some of the most popular and commonly sung Christmas carols/songs around the world. Hopefully at the end of this post, you’d find out how some of your favorite yuletide tunes came to being.
1. Silent Night
The well known Christmas carol “Silent Night” (also known as “Stille Nacht” in German) is the work of the Austrian Roman Catholic priest Joseph Mohr and his Austrian counterpart composer and primary school teacher Franz Xaver Gruber. The carol was first performed live on the Christmas Eve of 1818 at a church called St. Nicholas located in the Austrian town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg.
There are a number of stories surrounding the origins of this carol. According to one of the most famous of these stories, Mohr, who was serving as an assistant priest at St. Nicholas, needed a carol for his Christmas Eve church service, but since the organ at the church was not working, he wrote the poem “Stille Nacht” and contacted his friend Gruber to help him write a melody for the poem that wouldn’t need an organ to be played. Within a few hours, Gruber had finished composing the melody for the poem just in time for it to be performed at Mass of the Christmas Eve of 1818.
But in reality, what really happened was that Mohr had written the lyrics of “Stille Nacht” as far back as in 1816 in the Austrian town of Mariapfarr. Two years later, when he was transferred to St. Nicholas church in Oberndorf, he met Gruber and asked him to compose the music to “Stille Nacht”. After the song’s completion, the two men, backed by a choir, performed it for the first time on 24th December, 1818 at the St. Nicholas’ church.
In 1859, the song received an English translation by John Freeman Young, an American Episcopal Priest. Today, the song has been translated into over a hundred languages the world over and has made a name for itself as one of the most famous Christmas carols of all time.
2. The Twelve Days of Christmas
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is also another famous Christmas carol that Christmas wouldn’t be complete without! The lyrics of the carol, which are often believed to have originated from France, first appeared in the children’s book titled Mirth without Mischief published in London, England in 1780. The carol’s melody was later written by English baritone singer and composer Frederic Austin and published in 1909. In addition to composing the carol’s melody, Austin also slightly altered the carol’s lyrics, most notably by adding the preposition “on” at the beginning of each verse.
The twelve days in the lyrics refer to the festive Christian season of the Twelve Days of Christmas (also called the Twelvetide), which normally officially start from Christmas Day (25th December) all the way to 5th January. The song, which is made up of twelve verses, sees the narrator using each of the verses to describe the gift they received from their “true love” on each day of the Twelve Days of Christmas. So in all, the narrator received twelve gifts from their “true love”.
With regard to the origins of the song, till date, no one is hundred percent certain of where it originated from. However, many believe that the words of the song were derived from a memory and forfeits game that children in the past used to play. Others believe that the lyrics were written to serve as a catechism song to assist Catholics in learning their faith since at that time (from 1558 to 1829) it was illegal to practice Catholicism in England, which was purely an Anglican nation.
3. O Christmas Tree/ O Tannenbaum
“O Tannenbaum” is one of the most famous Christmas carols to have ever emerged from Germany. The lyrics of the carol were written in 1824 by the German teacher, composer and poet Ernst Anschütz. Anschütz wrote the carol’s lyrics based on the 16th-century Silesian folk song titled “Ach Tannenbaum” composed by the German composer Melchior Franck.
Interestingly, despite being a very famous Christmas hymn, the original lyrics of the song penned by Anschütz do not really talk about Christmas or a Christmas tree. What the lyrics actually talk about is the coniferous fir tree and its evergreen nature – a quality which symbolizes, among other things, faithfulness.
4. Joy to the World
“Joy to the World” is a renowned Christmas carol whose lyrics revolve around a message of joy to all the nations of the world informing them about God’s amazing gift of salvation to the world. The lyrics of the song, which are based on words from the Bible books Psalm (most notably Psalm 98) and Genesis, were written by the famous English hymn writer Isaac Watts and published in 1719. Despite the fact that the exact composer of the music of the carol is unknown, many attribute the composition of the music to German-born British baroque composer George Frideric Handel. Others also give the credit of the carol’s melody to American composer Lowell Mason, who not only adapted and arranged the carol, but also introduced it to Americans in 1836.
Prior to 1979, in North America alone, the song was published in approximately 1,387 hymnals, thereby making it the most published Christmas carol in that continent up to the year 1979. And just like many other famous carols, “Joy to the World” has also been recorded by several prominent artists such as Mariah Carey, The Supremes, Nat King Cole and Johnny Cash.
5. O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste fideles)
The Christmas hymn “O Come, All Ye Faithful” was originally written in Latin under the name “Adeste Fideles”. The carol gained fame in numerous Christian, English speaking countries after English author and Roman Catholic priest Frederick Oakeley translated it from Latin into English in 1841. And just like many other famous hymns of the past, the authorship of O Come, All Ye Faithful is also uncertain. Over the years, the authorship of the hymn has been attributed to several famous persons including English hymnist John Francis Wade, John IV of Portugal and English organist and composer John Reading.
Today, owing to how famous the hymn is, it has been covered by a number of prominent artists, including Mariah Carey.