The History of Christmas Carols and Hymns

Where did Christmas Carols and Hymns Come From?

Most of us know by heart at least a few Christmas songs, and have heard many others, both secular and religious. From Thanksgiving (and often even earlier) until Christmas we are inundated with them in stores, on the radio, at Christmas concerts, and once the secular world is putting away their Christmas decorations, Catholics get to continue to hear Christmas hymns and carols at Mass for another couple of weeks. Just listening to one of these any time during the year can conjure up visions of Christmas pageants, nativities, red and green decorations, Christmas trees, and stockings hung by the fireplace. But the holiday has not always been so inextricably linked with these songs.

Hymns written specifically for the feast of Christmas have been around, it seems, almost as long as the feast itself. Many of these early hymns were created for and added to the Divine Office, and weren’t widely known. Some of these early hymn-writers included St. Ambrose, Prudentius, and Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers.

Carols, which are more joyful songs associated with dance (the word “carol” comes from either the Old French term for a circle dance, carole, derived from the Latin choraula, or the Greek dance choraulein), seem to have been first introduced in the 12th century by St. Francis of Assisi, who is also credited with creating the first Nativity scene. He wanted to teach people about the birth of Jesus through music, so he added religious lyrics to well-known tunes. The concept of Christmas carols then traveled throughout Europe, including to Germany where many carols were written in the 14th century. Carols today often retain the medieval choral patterns from the tradition of these early carols. As time went on, the popularity of Christmas carols and hymns grew, and from this we have some of the most popular Christmas songs today.

Probably one of the more well-known, mainstream Christmas hymns today is “Silent Night,” which was written in 1818 in Austria. As the story goes, on Christmas Eve Father Joseph Mohr, the pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, ran into a problem when the church organ broke. There would not be time to get it repaired before Christmas Mass, and faced with the prospect of Christmas services with no organ music, Mohr took a poem he had written two years before and asked the church organist, Franz Gruber, to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment to go with the poem. Thus “Silent Night” (“Stille Nacht”) was born and first sung that night at the church’s midnight Mass.

The Latin hymn “O Come All Ye Faithful” (also well-known by its Latin name, “Adeste Fideles”), was composed by John Francis Wade in 1743. The lyrics may have been written as early as the 13th century, but it seems more likely that they were also written by John Francis Wade. The original version, written in Latin, had four verses, but four more were written – three by Etienne Jean Francois Borderies, and a fourth written anonymously.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” comes from England and was written sometime in the 15th century. It was one of the most popular carols for centuries, finally published around 1833. It is found in a wide variety of versions and with different numbers of verses, depending on the version.

The carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was written by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley who was an early leader of Methodism. It was written in 1739, and originally the first line was “Hark! How all the welkin rings, / Glory to the King of kings” (welkin meaning heaven). It was altered many times until the version we know today became the most popular. It was sung with a variety of tunes at first, but eventually the majority settled on a tune by Felix Mendelssohn written in 1840.

Many of these old hymns and carols that we still know today are entrenched into our associations with Christmas – and there are even more that have been lost through the years. There are also a great many that are not nearly as well-known or mainstream, but are beautiful, reverent, and joyful. Some of these can be found in the CD A Sacred Christmas, Noel: Carols and Chants for Christmas, or Christmas Carols and Motets. For many people today the season would probably seem much emptier, or at least somewhat unnatural, without the sounds of these Christmastime hymns and carols at Mass and in their homes.

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