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.
6. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
The lyrics of this renowned Christmas carol were written by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley, the originator of the Methodist faith. The hymn, which was first published in the 1739 book “Hymns and Sacred Poems” by John Wesley and Charles Wesley, are basically about Heavenly angels announcing the birth of Jesus Christ.
Since its release, the hymn underwent a number of alterations by different people, one of the most notable being the revision of the hymn’s opening couplet in 1758 by American cleric George Whitefield.
The tune of the hymn was composed by German composer and pianist Felix Mendelssohn and adapted in 1855 by English tenor and musician William Hayman Cummings to fit the Charles Wesley-penned lyrics of the hymn.
7. Deck The Halls
“Deck The Halls” dates back to the 16th century Wales. This song is widely considered a secular Christmas carol simply because of the fact that it is devoid of religious content. However, despite not being religiously themed, this song is one of the most sung Christmas carols of all time.
The melody of “Deck The Halls”, which originated as far back as the 16th century, was derived from a very popular traditional New Year’s Eve carol from Wales titled “Nos Galan” which in English means “New Year’s Eve”. The original lyrics of the song were written in Welsh by poet and architect John Jones (also known as Talhaiarn). The lyrics were later rewritten in English by Scottish musician and author Thomas Oliphant. Contrary to popular belief, Oliphant’s English lyrics are not mere translations of the original Welsh lyrics of the song but his own interpretations. Both the original Welsh lyrics by Talhaiarn and Oliphant’s versions were first seen in the 1862 publication titled Welsh Melodies, Vol. 2 by Welsh composer and harpist John Thomas.
8. Good King Wenceslas
This pretty unorthodox yet very famous Christmas carol is set to the melody of the 13th century carol titled “Tempus adest floridum”, which in English means “The time is near for flowering”. The lyrics of this carol, which were written by English writer John Neale and fellow English writer Thomas Helmore in 1853, tell the tale of a very kind Bohemian king’s (King Wenceslas) journey through harsh winter conditions just to help a poor peasant on 26th December (St. Stephen’s Day). The story is based on the real life of Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (also known as Saint Wenceslaus).
The hymn, which was first published in 1853 in “Carols for Christmas-Tide”, is one of the few Christmas carols that do not make mention of the Nativity (the birth of Jesus Christ). Despite this, it is tremendously popular the world over.
9. Jingle Bells
Practically anybody who has lived in a country that celebrates Christmas must have heard of the song “Jingle Bells” at some point in their life! That’s how incredibly popular this yuletide tune is. The song was written by American songwriter and composer James Lord Pierpont and published in 1857. The song was initially titled “One Horse Open Sleigh” and originally written to be performed during the celebration of Thanksgiving. However, owing to its catchy Christmas-like tune, several decades later after its release, it became associated with Christmas.
Despite being another Christmas carol considered to be unconventional because it is non-religious, “Jingle Bells” went on to become one of the most commonly sung Christmas songs around the world. On December 16, 1965, this song made history by becoming the first song to be broadcast from space.
Today, “Jingle Bells” is one of the most famous American songs ever written, and has been performed by several musical artists, including Bing Crosby, The Beatles, Gwen Stefani, and Frank Sinatra, among many others.
10. O Little Town of Bethlehem
We cannot complete our list without including the widely loved Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. The words of this famous hymn were written by American author and Episcopal clergyman Phillips Brooks, who was inspired to write the lyrics after he visited Bethlehem, Jerusalem in 1865. Three years later after Brooks’ visit to Bethlehem, he penned the poem for his church (the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia) based on his recollection of his pilgrimage to Bethlehem. The song’s melody was composed by American musician Lewis Redner, who also worked as the organist of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia. Redner set Brook’s poem to music on 24th December, 1868, and the next day (Christmas Day), the carol was sung publicly for the first time. According to Redner, Pastor Brooks approached him towards the Christmas of 1868 with his poem and asked him to write the tune to the words of the poem for their church’s Christmas Sunday-school service. Redner was forced to write the music quickly because he was under pressure to finish it in time before the parish’s Christmas service. Redner said of the tune as a “gift from heaven”.
It is worth noting that Redner’s tune (also known as “St. Louis”), isn’t the only tune used with “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. Other tunes commonly used with the carol include the English hymn melody titled “Forest Green” by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and “Christmas Carol” and “Wengen” by English composer Sir H. Walford Davies.
Of all the tunes, Redner’s is the most commonly used with the carol in the United States.
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