The History of Christmas Carols

Christmas carols have always been part of our holiday celebrations. From “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” these songs are so ingrained in our culture that you hear them everywhere–even when it’s not Christmas! Whether it’s a century-old hymn or a light-hearted contemporary carol, these songs have withstood the test of time. In this post, we’ll review the history of Christmas carols and look at how some of the classic ones came about to better appreciate this long-standing tradition.

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How did Christmas Carols Start?

The history of Christmas carols traces back to ancient times when people danced around stone circles and sang songs to celebrate the winter solstice. The term “carol” is a medieval word of French and Anglo-Norman origin that translates to “a dance song” or “a circle dance accompanied by singing.”

As Christianity became widespread, these old forms of carols, whether spoken, danced, or sung, were replaced by solemn Christian songs. These sacred carols that included chants, litanies, and supplications were written in Latin and too theological for popular use, so secular songs about feasts and drinking were conceived by the masses outside the church. These joyful carols were introduced in the 12th century by St. Francis of Assisi, when he started featuring songs or “canticles” in his nativity plays in Italy. These canticles told the story of Christ’s birth in regional native languages, making them easy to understand and popular to the public.

These carols spread quickly throughout Europe with the help of travelling troubadours, where they would sing Christmas carols in the streets. Developing separately from church carols, a similar practice of going door-to-door and singing good tidings was observed by ancient Celts. This is called wassailing.

Modern-day wassailers in Warwick, England. They dressed in old-fashioned costumes and painted their faces black.
Modern-day wassailers in Warwick, England dressed in old-fashioned costumes and with faces painted black

Derived from the Old Norse ves heill meaning “be well, and in good health,” wassailing is the ancient Celtic mid-winter fertility ritual of toasting to health, and blessing orchards, crops, and livestock. While chanting songs, they would pour spiced ale or mulled wine onto dormant crops and orchards after harvest to bless the ground. Seeing wassailing as a means of spreading Christmas goodwill, the church adopted it to become a Christmas tradition.

What was the first Christmas carol?

The traditional Christmas carols we know today were in the form of hymns centuries ago. The early Christians were in the habit of singing psalms and hymns, especially during their festivals and vigils of their saints. In 4th century Rome, a well-known hymn sung by the Angels to the Shepherds at the Lord’s Nativity is the Gloria in Excelsis (Glory in the Highest) and is considered the earliest Christmas carol. Gloria is an example of private psalms imitating the biblical Psalter that were popular in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This Latin lyric poetry is traditionally attributed to Saint Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368) and is still recited in the Byzantine Rite Orthros service today.

Other carols that were written in the 4th century include Veni redemptor gentium and Corde natus ex Parentis. Come, Redeemer of the Nations, or Veni redemptor gentium, was a Latin hymn written in 4th century by Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan. It was an austere statement of the theological doctrine of the Incarnation. Of the Father’s Love Begotten, or Corde natus ex Parentis, is based on a Latin poem written by the Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius in 348 and is still sung in churches today.

The oldest existing printed Christmas carol is “The Boar’s Head Carol” published in 1521 by Wynken de Worde in Christmasse Carolles.

Classic Christmas Carols and Their Origins

Caroling has been part of the Christmas tradition since the ancient times.
Caroling has been part of Christmas tradition since ancient times

Silent Night (1818)
In a pilgrim church in Austria, a Catholic priest by the name of Joseph Mohr wrote the poem “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” He asked a friend, Franz Gruber, to help him write guitar music for the poem. On Christmas Eve of 1818, they first performed Silent Night. Arguably one of the world’s most popular Christmas carols; the song has been translated into 300 languages. Because of its fame, Silent Night famously played a key role in the unofficial Christmas truce during World War I in 1914, since it was one of the only carols that both British and German soldiers knew.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1739)
Said to be inspired by the sound of church bells, this song was composed by Charles Wesley, brother of Methodist founder John Wesley. Charles wrote as many as 9,000 hymns and poems and this is one of his best known. Originally entitled Hark How All the Welkin Rings, the modern version of the song came about when organist William Hayman Cummings adapted it to a tune by German composer Felix Mendelssohn in the 1850s.

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (16th century)
Dated back to the 16th century or earlier, this traditional English Christmas song is one of the oldest extant carols. Several versions with different tunes across England were made, but the most familiar melody dates back to at least the 1650s, when it appeared in a book of dancing tunes.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949)
Johnny Marks wrote this cheery carol in 1949 based on a piece of relatively modern folklore written in 1939 by department store adman Robert May. The list of names for the red-nosed reindeer included Rollo, Reginald, Rodney, and Romeo. A metaphor for overcoming obstacles and embracing differences, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is one of the most popular contemporary Christmas songs ever written, selling millions of copies and inspiring recordings in various languages.

From their ancient origins, Christmas carols have changed and evolved to their current form and purpose thanks to the people who continue to practice them. Today, centuries-old songs are still sung at churches, and nativity plays with contemporary carols are still shown in plazas for people to appreciate. As long as there is a message to be heard and a caroler who enjoys singing, the Christmas carol will live centuries on.