Christmas carols have been sung since the 12th Century. They are a beloved type of Christmas music and central to religious Christmas celebrations.
Christmas music is an important part of the Christmas season. Christmas carols are Christmas songs whose lyrics deal with the Nativity of Jesus. Musically they are often based on medieval chord patterns, which gives them their distinctive sound.
In this Top 10 I’ll consider only those Christmas songs that fall solidly within the carol tradition of being religious in nature.
10. “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” Traditional
Some sources place the origins of this Christmas carol as early as the 6th century. It has ties to the ancient “Antiphons”, one of which was sung in medieval churches each night of the week leading up to Christmas. English priest John Mason Neale translated a version of the original Latin hymn, “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” around 1850 as the song we know today.
9. “What Child Is This?” lyrics by William Chatterton Dix, music Traditional
The music for this Christmas carol dates back to at least 1580 when “Greensleeves” was registered to Richard Jones. Some sources place the tune even earlier, and many credit it to England’s King Henry VIII. William Shakespeare used it in his “The Merry Wives Of Windsor” as the music that accompanied the hanging of traitors. In 1865 William Chatterton Dix wrote a poem, “The Manger Throne”. Three stanzas of that poem were put to the tune of “Greensleeves” and published as “What Child Is This?”
8. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” Traditional
Though the author or authors of this carol remain unknown, it is generally agreed that “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” dates back to 16th century England. Municipal employees called “waits” sang it in city streets. Like town criers, the waits were employed to perform certain civic duties, including singing seasonal songs publicly for the edification of the “proper people”. Charles Dickens refers to this Christmas song in his “A Christmas Carol”.
7. “Away In A Manger” Traditional
For years people believed Martin Luther to be the author of the lyrics to “Away In A Manger”. This is because it was first published in 1887 in James R. Murray’s “Dainty Songs for Lads and Lassies” under the title “Luther’s Cradle Hymn”. Murray also added his own initials to the work, leading many to believe he had written the tune. At least the first two verses of the lyrics were probably published in 1855 in a Lutheran Sunday school publication.
6. “The First Noel” Traditional
Most sources trace the origin of “The First Noel” to the Miracle Plays of 13th century Europe. “Noel” is French for Christmas, from the Latin “natalis”, so that leads many to believe this Christmas song originated in France. William Sandys is credited with first publishing an English version in 1833 in his “Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern”.
5. “Angels We Have Heard On High” Traditional
Sources give a variety of possible origins for this Christmas carol. Some place it as early as A.D. 129 when Telesphorus, Bishop of Rome, proclaimed the “Angels Hymn” be sung on Christmas Eve. Others trace it to the medieval French countryside where on Christmas Eve shepherds would call to each other with the Latin phrase “Gloria in excelsis Deo.” And others cite the traditional French carol “Les Anges dans nos Campagnes” or “Angels in our Countryside” as the source. James Chadwick is most often credited with translating it to English in 1862.
4. “O Holy Night” lyrics by John Sullivan Dwight, music by Adolphe Charles Adam
Sources disagree on which came first, the words or the music, but all agree on the sources. French wine merchant, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure wrote the original French text as a poem, “Cantique de Noel” in 1847. His friend, Adolphe Charles Adam set it to music. Adam is best remembered for his ballet “Giselle”. In 1855 American clergyman and abolitionist John Sullivan Dwight translated the song into the English version we sing today.
3. “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” lyrics by Charles Wesley, music by Felix Mendelssohn
Neither Wesley nor Mendelssohn would have approved of the combination of their work, but the result is one of the most loved Christmas carols. Wesley wrote the lyrics in 1739 in his Hymns and Sacred Poems. The first line was originally “Hark! How all the welkin (Heaven) rings, Glory to the King of Kings.” Wesley’s colleague George Whitefield changed the opening line to what we sing today.
Mendelssohn wrote the music as part of a cantata honoring Johann Gutenberg and the invention of publishing. William Cummings adapted the tune and put it to Wesley’s lyrics to finalize the song we sing today. Neither of the authors would have approved; Wesley had suggested a slow, solemn tune would best fit his lyrics, and Mendelssohn believed his tune to be unsuitable for sacred lyrics.
2. “Joy To The World” lyrics by Isaac Watts, music by Lowell Mason
Isaac Watts wrote the words for “Joy To The World” in 1719 in his book “Psalms of David”, they’re based on part of Psalm 98. In 1839 Lowell Mason set the words to music and added a note crediting the lyrics to George Frederick Handel, composer of “The Messiah”. For over a century Handel was believed to be the lyricist, until music historians uncovered the true origin of the words.
1. “Silent Night” lyrics by Joseph Mohr, music by Franz Gruber
Tradition holds that Joseph Mohr, the parish priest at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, wrote the words to “Silent Night” and had Franz Gruber, the church choir director, write the music for it and then performed it for the very first time all on Christmas Eve 1818. The song was written for and performed on the guitar because, as the story goes, the church organ was out of commission. Other accounts report that Mohr actually wrote the words in 1816. Some sources, including music historian Joel Whitburn in his “Pop Memories 1890 – 1954”, claim that “Silent Night” is the most recorded song in history.
Christmas Music Makes The Season Memorable
All of the Christmas carols on my list are full of lyrics that inspire hope and goodwill. There are literally hundreds of other Christmas songs and carols that will add to your enjoyment of this special time of year. You can listen to recorded versions of them alone, participate in a religious service or join a group of carolers in spreading the joy of the season in a children’s hospital or nursing home. Whatever your preference, Christmas carols will make your holiday celebrations more merry.
I’d love to get your opinions on this Top Ten. You comment hear or on my Face Book page or the Prevenings with Jerry and Shannon Face Book page. Merry Christmas