The History of Christmas Carols

Christmas carols have been around for so long that everyone is completely used to their presence. Yet, have you ever actually stopped to think about how they got there in the first place? Many of the iconic and timeless carols you know have a fascinating and surprising origin.

Read on to learn more: 

1. Carol of the Bells

This haunting holiday tune has popped up just about everywhere in the movies and television series. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t originally a Christmas song. Carol of the Bells started as a Ukrainian folk chant that told of the coming New Year, which pre-Christian Ukraine celebrated in April. The chant’s meaning had shifted in the 1930s when the American composer Peter J. Wilhousky gave the tune new lyrics and rearranged its melody. This enabled it to be performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra and proved to be a canny change as the song then became a Christmas carol since he wrote new lyrics in 1936.

2. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

This song was originally composed as a Christmas Day hymn in 1739 by Methodist leader Charles Wesley, who wrote more than 6,000 hymns. It was initially given a rather bland name, ‘Hymn for Christmas Day’. But that’s not all, the opening lyrics were different too: “Hark how all the Welkin rings / Glory to the Kings of Kings.” (For the record, the word “welkin” is an old English term for the heavens.) English evangelist George Whitefield tweaked the lyrics about 15 years later and renamed it “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”

4. Do You Hear What I Hear?

This song is one of the newest songs on the list. It was written during the height of the Cold War, as the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding. “In the studio, the producer was listening to the radio to see if we had been obliterated. En route to my home, I saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. The little angels were looking at each other and smiling,” says songwriter Noel Regney. And when you take into consideration the time it was written, the lines about ‘ringing through the sky’, take on a slightly more apocalyptic tone.

5. The 12 Days of Christmas

This long-time favorite Christmas tune is said to have come about as a way for Catholics to practice catechism in a way that people would not understand. The 12 gifts are said to represent the 12 fruits of the Holy Ghost. However, there is not a lot of evidence for this theory, and the song likely originated as a kind of memory game for kids. The best-known version was printed in 1780 in the children’s book, Mirth without Mischief. In 1909, the musical structure originated from a piece of sheet music by an English composer which makes the song fun to sing, and more so, fun to rewrite.

6. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

This song was written in 1943 by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the Judy Garland musical Meet Me in St. Louis. Originally, the lyrics to this song were considered to be too sad, especially at a time when WW2 was unfolding: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas / It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past.” According to Martin, Garland refused to sing it: “She said, ‘If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll think I’m a monster.’” The lyrics were then quickly changed.

7. Joy to the World

This is undoubtedly the most-published Christmas hymn on the continent and is yet another song on the list that was never meant to be a Christmas song. The song was published in 1719 and English hymnist Isaac Watts intended the song to be sung for Easter. His lyrics were referring to the second coming of Jesus. The version we know today comes from Lowell Mason’s The National Psalmist from 1848, titled ‘Antioch’ and attributed to Handel.

8. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

This is one of the oldest carols still commonly sung today. It dates back to the 16th century and describes how Jesus has come, ‘to save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.’

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