A History of Christmas Carols and Christmas Songs

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Podcast Transcript

Every year, and it seems like it is getting earlier and earlier, you start hearing the very familiar songs of Christmas. 

…and very year, we hear the exact same songs, many of which have been passed down for centuries. 

Where did these songs come from, and why do we call Christmas songs “carols”? 

Learn more about Christmas carols, Christmas music and the origin of these songs on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


Let’s start this discussion of Christmas songs with the big question: Why are Christmas carols called carols? 

We don’t have birthday carols or Halloween carols? Why do we use this word in association with Christmas music and nothing else? 

The word carol dates back to the Middle Ages. The origin of the word comes from Old French, and the word carole, spelled with an ‘e.’ A carole was a festive song that was usually accompanied by a dance. It was originally not necessarily a religious song but rather something which was simply joyous.

Eventually, carols became more religious in nature and were usually sung in Latin. 

The person credited with popularizing Christmas songs was Saint Francis of Assisi. He adopted many of these carols for use in Christmas celebrations. 

After the Protestant reformation, there was a movement to take songs in Latin and to bring them to the common tongue of the people. Many of these songs became quite popular and would be sung outside of church when there were seasonable festivities. 

The first English language Christmas carols were documented in 1426 in a book by the minister John Awdlay.  

Christmas carols were eventually used by groups known as wassailers who would go wassailing, which was going door-to-door singing, often in exchange for a drink, usually mulled wine, from something known as a wassail bowl. 

Today, going door-to-door singing is just known as caroling, but it was originally known as wassailing. 

Over time, as the Christmas season had the most parties and festivities, carols became associated with Christmas, even though in the past, there were many other types of carols, including harvest carols and Easter carols. 

The oldest Christmas carols are ones that were originally written in Latin but were later translated. It isn’t known what Christmas song is the oldest, but the oldest Christmas carol that most people would probably recognize is Good King Wenceslas. 

The song first appears in a book of carols from 1582. 

The modern canon of Christmas music you are familiar with was slow to develop. The song “Adeste Fideles,” or “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in English, existed in its current form sometime around the mid-18th century, although the lyrics might date back to the 13th century. 

Modern Christmas music really began to pick up in the early 19th century with the publication of songbooks. 

Many of the first Christmas songs which were published were not necessarily written at that time. They are traditional songs which had been sung for centuries, but no one knows who wrote them or when. 

William Sandys’ 1833 book “Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern” was the first documentation of several of these songs. Some of these include:

“God Rest You Merry Gentlemen.” This song probably dates back to the 16th century, at least. The original title and lyrics of the song were actually, “God Sit You Merry Gentlemen.” 

“I Saw Three Ships.” This, too, was a traditional song with the lyrics often improvised depending on the location where it was being sung. The current lyrics to the song speak of a ship sailing into Bethlehem….which is actually a landlocked city with the nearest body of water being the Dead Sea. 

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” This actually dates back to the early 18th century, but the original lyrics were “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”. Welkin was a Middle English word that referred to the celestial sphere. 

The other well-known carol from Sandys’ book was “The First Noel.” This was probably a song that originated in Cornwall several centuries earlier. In early modern English, nowell was a synonym for Christmas, which came from the French word “Noël.”  The French word comes from the phrase “Bonnes Nouvelles,” which simply means good news. 

In the Cornish version, they would often sing “O Well, O Well”.

Not all Christmas songs came from Britain. In 1818, the song “Stille Nacht” was written and performed for the first time in the small town of  Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. It was written and performed by Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr. 

The song was later translated into English as “Silent Night.”

Silent Night is the most popular Christmas song in terms of the number of recordings that have been made. There have been almost 800 copyrighted recordings made since 1978, over twice as many as the next closest song, Joy To The World.

It also regularly sits at the top of polls for people’s favorite Christmas songs.

By the way, Franz Gruber should not be confused with Hans Gruber, who was famous for a very different Christmas tradition. 

Likewise, in 1824 in Leipzig, Germany, a local teacher and musician by the name of Ernst Anschütz took a traditional song and created new lyrics to create the song O Tannenbaum, known in English as, Oh, Christmas Tree.

Late 19th century Victorian England saw a revival in Christmas carols and caroling. This revival was due to the prohibition of Christmas celebrations in England in the 17th century by the Puritans. 

You probably may have noticed that many Christmas carols have rather antiquated language. This is due to the period from which many of them were written or popularized. 

There were also familiar Christmas carols written in the United States during this period. 

In 1868, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written by an American Episcopalian clergyman by the name of Phillips Brooks. 

“Away in a Manger” was written in 1895 by Irish-American composer William J. Kirkpatrick. 

Perhaps the most popular Christmas song of all was written in 1857 by James Lord Pierpont under the original title, “The One Horse Open Sleigh.” We know the song as Jingle Bells. 

Jingle Bells, if you pay close attention to the lyrics, has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, even though it is universally thought of as a Christmas song. It was believed to have been written for a Sunday school choir for Thanksgiving. 

The song is also considered to be very derivative and unoriginal by music historians as it is really just a rehash of other similar sleighing songs from the period. 

Both Savanah, Georgia, and Medford, Massachusetts, claim to be the location where the song was written. 

In 1889, it was the first Christmas song ever recorded on an Edison wax  

cylinder. 

While many of the most beloved Christmas songs had already been written before the start of the 20th century, there were still plenty of Christmas tunes to be made. 

There have been a lot of Christmas songs written over the last 100 years, but most of them have been forgettable. Only a handful have become part of the canon of regularly played Christmas songs.

Most of the popular Christmas songs written in the 20th century were all written after the Second World War. 

Probably the most popular modern Christmas song is Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer. If you remember back to my episode on Santa Claus, the song was based on a story commissioned by the Montgomery Ward department store in 1939.

A version recorded by Gene Autry went to the top of the charts on Christmas week 1949, and the song has become one that almost every child knows and it redefined the story of Santa Claus. 

The song Silver Bells was released in 1950 and the first recording was sung by Bing Crosby. There was a version recorded by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the movie The Lemon Drop Kid, from 1951. 

The Christmas Song, better known as Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, was written by Mel Torme in 1945. However, the song is most associated with Nat King Cole who recorded several different versions. He made recordings in 1946, 1953, and 1961, with the last version being the most popular. 

The highest-ranking version of the song, however, came in 1999 when a recording by Christina Aguilera peaked at number 18 on the Billboard chart.

The song the Little Drummer Boy was written in 1941 by American composer Katherine Kennicott Davis. The first recording of the song was in 1951 by the von Trapp Family, who were the family that was the subject of the Sound of Music. 

With the advent of Rock and Roll, new Christmas songs were being written. Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms was released in 1957. It has appeared in the Billboard Top 100 10 times over the last 65 years around Christmas time. It first made the charts in 1958 and most recently appeared in 2022.

In 1958, the Chipmunk Song was released under the artist name Alvin and the Chipmunks. The composer was Ross Bagdasarian, who used the stage name of David Seville.

Believe it or not, the song won three Grammy Awards for or Best Comedy Performance, Best Children’s Recording, and Best Engineered Record.

Almost every popular recording artist has recorded a Christmas album or at least a Christmas song. It can be really good business.

I want to end with the one modern Christmas song that has completely dominated all others in terms of sales, chart rankings, and royalties. 

All I Want for Christmas Is You by Mariah Carey. 

Mariah Carey is a very, very successful singer. She has set many Billboard records, including having been at number 1 for 87 weeks. 

However, of all her number-one songs, nothing has approached the success of All I Want for Christmas Is You.

It was released in 1994 and has been one of the most widely played Christmas songs over the last 30 years. 

It has hit number one on the charts in 25 countries.

It first reached number one in the US in 2019, having set the record for the longest time to reach number one for a song. It was also the first Christmas song to reach number one in the US since the Chipmunk Song in 1958.

Since reaching number one in 2019, it has hit number one in every subsequent year thereafter, becoming the first single to hit number one in four different runs in four different years. 

The song has sold 16 million physical copies as a single, which is rather impressive as it occurred during a time when singles weren’t really sold.

The top-selling single in history, by the way, is another Christmas song, White Christmas by Bing Crosby, which was released in 1942.

The most astounding thing about this single song is the amount of money it has made. 

As of 2021, the song has made over $106 million dollars in worldwide royalties. It is estimated that the song is currently making over $5 million dollars per year, every year, simply from it being played over and over. 

All I Want for Christmas Is You has become the best annual annuity in the history of popular music.  It isn’t just a song that was popular once, it is a song that is popular every single year.

Initially, Mariah Carey didn’t even want to record a song because she felt it was something you did at the end of your career, not the beginning. 

If you’ve ever seen the movie About A Boy, Hugh Grant plays an aimless playboy who is wealthy from the royalties of a popular Christmas song written by his father.

The premise of the character is not out of the question.

Christmas music is an important part of Christmas. Some radio stations go to a 100% Christmas music format around this time of the year. You know Christmas is approaching when you start hearing Christmas music in stores. 

Christmas songs are so ingrained in our culture that I’m guessing most of you listening to this right now could probably at least hum the tunes to every one of the songs and carols I’ve mentioned in this episode. 

So the next time you hear a Christmas song, which very well might occur within the next hour, give some thought to the history and big business behind Christmas music.