Christmas songs and carol singers: the festive musical tradition has been around for as long as Christmas has existed. And when it comes to Christmas music, it doesn’t get more Christmassy than gathering with friends and family, sharing some mince pies, mulled wine and singing songs. But have you ever wondered where your favourite Christmas songs come from? Here are the origins of your favourite Christmas carols!
Silent Night, written in 1818
It may well surprise you that the first version of ever favourite Christmas song ‘Silent Night’ was actually in German! Originally called Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Silent Night was written in a tiny town by the name of Oberndorf bei Salzburg in 1818. The song was named as ‘intangible cultural heritage’ by UNESCO in 2011 and will no doubt bring joy to many audiences to come.
Deck the Halls, melody dates back to the 16th-Century (lyrics written in 1862)
Fa la la la la… Deck the Halls was once simply known as just ‘Deck the Hall’. Of all the origins of your favourite Christmas carols on this list, this is one of the many with no original ties to Christmas. Although the current English lyrics date back to 1862, the Welsh melody of the song is much older, dating back as far as the 16th Century. Prior to the 1860s, the Welsh melody was used for Welsh song ‘Nos Galan’ (New Year’s Eve).
Good King Wenceslas, written in 1853
The favourite festive carol of Good King Wenceslas was written as early as 1853, though many believe that it was probably composed at an even earlier date. Those already familiar with the popular Christmas song will know that it follows the story of a 10th Century Bohemian King who wished to give to those more in need than him.
King Wenceslas was a 10th Century Duke in Bohemia (a historical country in the middle of Europe that was part of the Holy Roman Empire). The carol ties in well with one of the theories for the origins of Boxing Day, that of giving to those in need and is a celebration of St Stephen’s Day rather than the nativity.
Once in Royal David’s City, written in 1848-9
Of all the origins of your favourite Christmas carols, the beginnings of the narrative song chronicling the birth of Baby Jesus may well surprise you. After all, the song was originally intended to be a poem! First published in 1848 in Miss Cecil Humphreys ‘Hymns for little children’, a year later an English organist fell in love with the poem and composed music to accompany it. Little known is that Miss Cecil Humphreys also composed the ever so famous hymn of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ (often sung at Sunay services).
God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, dates back to the 16th Century
Unfortunately, no one actually knows the origins of this Christmas carol. However, it’s thought that God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen dates all the way back to the 16th century, perhaps even earlier. Also known as ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’ and ‘God Rest Ye, Merry Christians,’ the earliest known printed edition of the carol is from a broadsheet of 1760.
Jingle Bells, written in 1857
If there’s any song that was not intended to be a Christmas Carol, or indeed anything to do with the festive period, then Jingle Bells is it. Although historians often dispute the origins of the popular Christmas song, it’s clear that the music was originally intended for the Thanksgiving period. It’s thought that Jingle Bells was first composed in the 19th century as part of a Sunday school programme.
Although many historians dispute this, some believe that it was a way of documenting the fascinating and often downright bizarre dating games of American teenagers at the time (and yes, those dating rituals included sleighs!). There’s actually a few more verses to the song, that are rarely sung or known about today. One is:
Now the ground is white
Go it while you’re young,
Take the girls to night
And sing this sleighing song;
Just get a bob tailed bay
Two forty as his speed.
Hitch him to an open sleigh
And crack, you’ll take the lead.
In the Bleak Mid Winter, first set to music in 1906
‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ are four Christmas words that anyone familiar with the Christmas carol genre will recognise. First published as a poem in 1872 and written by iconic author Christina Rossetti (poet, romantic, author of The Goblin Market, and part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement), the poem was set to music in 1906 by Gustav Holst.
It’s speculated that Rossetti created the poem during a particularly cold spell of weather and only ever left England twice in her lifetime, unlike some of her Pre-Rapahelite contemporaries. The language is simple and the final message clear: giving is all about the intentions and not the final gift…