History of Christmas Music

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Christmas music comprises a variety of genres of music normally performed or heard around the Christmas season, which tends to begin in the months leading up to the actual holiday and end in the weeks shortly thereafter. Music was an early feature of the Christmas season and its celebrations.

The Earliest Christmas Songs

The earliest Christmas songs are thought to originate in the Middle Ages. The 12th century brought us the traditional hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”…although the music and words we are most familiar with were adapted and translated, respectively, in the mid-1800s. Another early favorite is “The First Noel,” which dates back to the 13th century.

The 16th century brought us 3 other traditional songs: “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and “O Christmas Tree.” Next to “Silent Night,” “O Christmas Tree” is the second most popular holiday song to originate from Germany.

Another fun fact? The title “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” may not mean what you think. The Old English word “merry” best translates in modern English to “pleasant” or “agreeable,” not happy. And “rest” in Old English best translates to “keep.” Thus “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” most accurately means “God Keep You, Pleasant Gentlemen.”

Christmas in the 1600s

Several carols and hymns we hear and sing today had their origins in the streets and churches of England in the 1600s. A few of note include “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Here We Come A Caroling.” Very little is known about the origins of both. We do know that “Here We Come A Caroling,” otherwise known as “The Wassail Song,” was a song meant to wish a person good health and good cheer in the New Year.

Music was also being brought to the American colonies from England. The Pilgrims brought with them a certain traditional tune that we now call “What Child Is This?” (those words were added in the 1800s). The name of the tune? “Greensleeves.”

Christmas in the 1700s

During the 1700s, Christmas hymns and carols gained popularity, partly due to the publication of song collections. The famous classical comper Handel published several holiday songs that still maintain their popularity including “While Shephards Watched Their Flocks By Night” and (we think) “Joy to the World.”

Other traditional Christmas songs that originated from the 1700s include “O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fidelis),” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Holly and the Ivy,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High.” England continued to reign as the main producer of Christmas hymns as all but the last hymn mentioned above were composed by an Englishman.

When Prince Albert married the English Queen Victoria in 1840, the face of Christmas was changed forever. For centuries, several religious denominations and movements, such as the Protestant Reformation and Puritanism, had condemned and sometimes even abolished Christmas celebrations as pagan traditions.

But when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria, he brought with him German customs. One such custom was the celebration of Yule, or Yuletide, a winter festival that emerged from an ancient German pagan religious festival. The customs and pageantry of Yuletide were mixed with the English celebration of Christmas. Christmas was now re-invented and included elements such as the evergreen tree, greenery, exchanging gifts, caroling, and Christmas cards.

This re-popularization of Christmas was also reflected in the music.

New Christmas Hymns

The middle 30 years of the 1800s, from about 1838-1868, brought us our first surge of new Christmas tunes, including:

  • “Silent Night” (1818-63)
  • “Joy to the World” (1839)
  • “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” (1840)
  • “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (1846-50)
  • “O Holy Night” (1847-55)
  • “Good Kind Wenceslas” (1853)
  • “Angels We Have Heard in High” (1855)
  • “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (1857)
  • “Jingle Bells” (1850-59)
  • “Up on the Housetop” (circa 1860)
  • “What Child is This?” (1865-71)
  • “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (1868)
  • “Away in a Manger: (1885-87)
  • “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” (late 1800s)

Although some tunes written during this time remain in obscurity (such as “Gather Around the Christmas Tree,” composed by the same person who gave us “We Three Kings of Orient Are”), many are commonly known and sung to this day.

Re-imagined Christmas Hymns

The mid- to late-1800s were a time not only when new Christmas hymns were written, but when hymns were translated into English (such as “Adeste Fideles” in 1841) and lyrics were added to older tunes (such as the 2nd and 3rd stanzas of “O Christmas Tree” in 1824).

In 1871 alone, three tunes that were hundreds of centuries old were re-arranged for and re-introducted to the public: “The First Noel” (13th century), “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (16th century), and “Here We Come A-caroling” (17th century).

Why so many in a single year? 1871 was the year that Sir John Stainer published the collection “Christmas Carols New & Old,” which included many of his own arrangements.

Fun Facts and Interesting Tidbits

Here are some interesting facts about some of your favorite Christmas songs:

Did you know…that “Jingle Bells,” one of the few songs in the list above written by an American composer, was originally intended as a Thanksgiving song?

Did you know…that the well-known classical composer G.F. Handel is often credited for composing “Joy to the World,” but credit should be given to the founder of music education in America, Lowell Mason? The confusion lies in that Mason wrote “From George Frederick Handel” in the score because he used some phrases from Handel’s “Messiah” in the music.

Did you know…that, along with “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “O Holy Night” is one of the most well-known French Christmas songs? To this day, it is one of the most popular and beloved songs for singing as a solo during the holiday season.

Did you know…that the music to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was composed by the famous romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn?

Did you know…that Father Joseph Mohr was inspired to write the words to “Stille Nacht” in 1816 after being called to travel through the snow to bless the newly born baby of a poor parishioner? Two year later, the words were set to music by Franz Xaver Gruber. The English translation to what we now call “Silent Night”” was done in 1863.

One of the results of the Victorian-era’s reinvention of Christmas was the creation of dozens of new Christmas songs, including favorites such as “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Away in a Manger.”

However, this trend died down and little new holiday music was composed from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. There were some exceptions, such as “Go Tell It On the Mountain” (1907) and “Toyland” (1903), but by and large we see a drop newly-composed holiday music.

Until the Great Depression

The 3 decades spanning from the Great Depression through the post-war 1950s saw our second surge of newly-composed holiday music. Much of this music was secular in nature (i.e. it was not tied specifically to religion) and much of it was composed in America. Generally speaking, current “standard” holiday music that emerged from the mid-20th century were tied to entertainment and the media, to the crooners of the day, or were novelty songs.

Traditional Christmas Music Heard In Our Day

  • “Angels We Have Heard on High”
  • “Away in a Manger”
  • “Deck the Halls” (Deck the Hall)
  • “Ding Dong Merrily on High”
  • “The First Noel”
  • “Go Tell It on the Mountain”
  • “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen)
  • “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
  • “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”
  • “Joy to the World”
  • “O Christmas Tree”
  • “O Come, All Ye Faithful”
  • “O Holy Night”
  • “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
  • “Silent Night”
  • “The Twelve Days of Christmas”
  • “We Three Kings of Orient Are”
  • “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”
  • “What Child Is This?”
  • “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”
  • “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
  • “Mary, Did You Know?”

Portions of this Music History are taken from various sources to build this brief historical review of Christmas Carols and Music.

A Brief History of Holiday Music | Published on November 2011 by Kimberly Sena Moore in Your Musical Self

Nobbman, D.V. (2000). Christmas Music Companion Fact Book. Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream Publishing.

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