Christmas carols unwrapped

A welcome sound during the run up to Christmas, but where did they come from?

Christmas carols unwrapped

As you might expect, most of the popular Christmas carols and songs originated centuries ago. Some have a more regal background, whilst others are rooted in religion or folk tradition. Here are some of the most popular carols and their sometimes surprising backgrounds! 

While Shepherds Watched

This is a carol descended from one of the greats, George Frideric Handel, a German-born composer but was granted British citizenship at the age of 42. He wrote the melody as part of his opera Siroe, which Lyricist Nahum Tate then borrowed in 1703 and added the lyrics that we know today.

Silent Night

Arguably the most popular Christmas carol, Silent Night is believed to have been translated into over 300 different languages. Not only this, but the carol famously united German and British troops during the Christmas truce of World War I in 1914. All credit to Austrian priest Joseph Mohr and his stroke of genius in 1816. 

Deck the Halls

If it’s good enough for Mozart, it’s good enough for us. Following its creation, derived from an old Welsh song in the 16th century, Nos Galan was translated into English by Scottish poet, Thomas Oliphant, before Mozart adopted it for his 18th violin and piano duet in 1778.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Despite the somewhat questionable gifts, this carol remains a firm favourite amongst all age groups. Some historians would argue that this carol is of French origin, however the earliest known version is from a children's book published in 1780 called ‘Mirth With-out Mischief’ and was used as a memory game. From leaping lords to French hens, estimates suggest that the combined cost of all the gifts mentioned in this song would total a staggering £40,000! 

In the Bleak Midwinter

No Christmas church service is complete without a beautiful choral arrangement of this mournful carol. The lyrics conjure the harshness and stillness of an unforgiving white winter landscape and were written by English poet, Christina Rosetti in 1872, which Gustav Holst set to music and harmonised in 1905.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

The tune of this uplifting carol was originally written by renowned German composer, Felix Mendelssohn in 1840 as part of a cantata celebrating the life of the famous printer, Johann Gutenberg. The words came from a Christmas hymn written in 1739 by the leader of the Methodist church, Charles Wesley. Although ironically, Mendelssohn said that his tune should never be used as sacred music!

Jingle Bells

This integral Christmas song actually originated in America, specifically at 19 High Street in Medford, Massachusetts. Here, a plaque commemorates the spot where James Lord Pierpont wrote it, inspired by sleigh races on Salem Street, while sitting in a tavern in 1850.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

This biblical carol has been traced right back to 15th century France, but no original composer has been credited for its creation. The text of this carol was translated from Latin in 1851 by priest and scholar John Mason Neale and the original text comes from the ‘O Antiphons’, traditionally used during the last seven days of advent during the Roman Catholic Vespers service.

This year will be a Christmas like no other, but we can still find joy and comfort in the little things.

Have you enjoyed reading about the history of some of the most popular Christmas Carols? Here is a link to the book which I used to source some of the information featured above – Really Easy Piano - Christmas Carols

Header Image Credit: Mortaza Shahed on Unsplash


Ellen Taylor

Ellen Taylor Contributor

Ellen is currently in her 4th year studying classical piano at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. she has enjoyed a varied musical career including teaching, playing in an Orchestra and performing in many venues including Wigmore Hall and The Royal Albert Hall. She also enjoys playing classical guitar, walking her dog and improving her cooking skills in her spare time.

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