A Select History of Christmas Carols and Songs

Christmas Carols and songs have been part of the Christmas tradition for hundreds of years. Some our favorites like “) Come All Ye Faithful” was first sung in Latin. The music of Christmas goes as far back as the day of Christ’s birth when the angel’s sang “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace Good will to men.”

Be fore we get in to our list of the best music of Christmas, I want to give a a small but accurate definition between Christmas Carols and Christmas songs. A Christmas Carol is a song that is Biblically and theologically accurate. For instance “Hark The Herald Angels Sing,” is a Christmas Carol. “The Little Drummer Boy” is not. Jingle Bell Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer and Winter Wonderland, are Christmas songs but definitely not carols.

Here we will explore ten pieces of music. Five carols and five songs. We will look at their history as well as their meaning, where applicable, and hopefully come away with a bit more joy in this wonderful season.

The Carols

O Little Town of Bethlehem
O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by Phillips Brooks and published in 1874. Brooks was The Rector of Trinity Church in Philadelphia and was very vocal about his position against slavery. During the 1860s Brooks made a trip to the Holy Land and ended up in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve where he attended a service that lasted from 10:00 PM until 3:00 AM it was during this service that the seeds for his carol got planted.

Brooks came home from The Holy Land and penned a poem that he gave to his organist to put music to. It was during The Christmas Season of 1868 that the children of his church first sang and the world first heard, O Little Town of Bethlehem.

Silent Night

Silent night cam about purely by accident. In 1818 Joseph Mohr was assigned to a small parish in Oberndorf Austria, Saint Nicholas Church. Mohr was cleaning the church in preparation for a special Christmas Eve service when he discovered to his horror that organ would not play. Not wanting to disappoint his congregation and desperately wanting music for Christmas, Mohr did the only thing he could. He prayed to God for inspiration and God gave him what he needed.

Two years previously Mohr had written a poem that he called Silent Night Holy Night. It was after he prayed that he remembered the poem. He rushed to his room grabbed the poem and made his way to the school teachers, Franz Gruber, apartment. Mohr explained his dilemma and asked the school teacher if he could write music for his poem. Gruber was up for the task and in a few hours had written the music for Silent Night. It was then taken to the choir and taught to them. Accompanied by guitar, the choir in four part harmony and Mohr along with Gruber performed the song for the first time a little after midnight.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

In the year 1515 church music was to put it bluntly, boring. The songs were mostly in Latin and had somber melodies. It took the peasants of the day to decide to write worship songs in the language and the happier style of the day. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen was part of that rebellion. But there is a problem with song and the problem is we really don’t know what the words mean.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, had a very different meaning back in 1515 than it has today. If we look at the title of the song we would take it to mean God give rest to these happy guys. But that is not what the writers were saying. In Old English The word rest means make and the word merry means mighty. So The title actually reads God make you might gentlemen. It is a blessing and reminder of the power behind the birth of Jesus.

O Come All Ye Faithful

During a time of religious strife in England. When King Henry The Eighth had established his Church of England and the state was doing it’s best to rid England of Catholic Clergy, as well as Catholics themselves a young cleric named John Wade was forced to flee England in 1745 to find refuge in France. Wade was given the responsibility of trying to save the churches records as well as its music. A musician himself, Wade was inspired to write O Come All Ye Faithful during his exile. In many ways it is a call to exiled Catholics to come and worship, which for them, at that time, could mean death.

O Come All Ye Faithful was originally song in Latin and was written in Latin as that was the language of the church at that time. It’s original title in Latin was “Adeste Fidelis” The song has been recorded over and over again and has ended up on the charts at least three times.

O Holy Night

O Holy Night is one carol which I believe is soing every Christmas Eve at every Christian Church and usually by a soprano. I may be exaggerating a bit but this song has a way of saying Christmas has come.

As popular as this carol is today it hasn’t always been so. In fact at one time the church banned the singing of it at all. In 1847 Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was a commissionaire of wines in a small town in France. Not being a very religious man he was surprised when a parish priest asked him to pen a poem for Christmas Mass. Placide took on the task and on a trip to Paris we wrote O Holy Night. He based the poem on The Gospel of Saint Luke. Placide was so happy with his poem that he took it to his friend Adolph Charles Adams, who wrote music for the poem. The song was an immediate hit in France. Not long afterwards Placide took on decidedly socialist politics and it was found out that Adams was Jewish. The church banned the song from being played at mass, though the people continued to sing it.

It took several years for the song to make it across the Atlantic to America but make it, it did and was lovingly translated by John Sullivan Dwight. Dwight was squarely behind the ending of Slavery in the south and he felt that the lyric “Truly he taught us to love one another, His law is love and his gospel is peace. Chains shall he break for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.” was perfect as a cry against slavery. The song became very popular in the northern states and would go on to gain fame across the country.

The Songs

We Need A Little Christmas

In 1955 Patrick Dennis wrote his novel Auntie Mame. The story of a madcap woman who raises her nephew, after the death of his father, in a thoroughly unorthodox and down right funny way. Not long afterward the book became a play and in 1958 a movie starring Rosalind Russel. In 1966 Jerry Herman, after his success and composer lyracist for Hello Dolly, took on Auntie Mame and Christmas would get a new song.

The musical came to be called Mame and starred Angel Lansbury. It is not long after Mame has been given custody of her nephew, Patrick, that the 1929 stock market crash occurs. Mame who had previously been wealthy, now has nothing and after having failed as an actress has just been fired from working in a department store. Coming home depressed and desperate, Mame is greeted by her Nephew, her butler and Patrick’s Nanny who had gotten together to pay off the butcher bill. Mame is touched and her old vigor and love of life comes back. It is one week before Thanksgiving, but regardless Mame sings “We Need A Little Christmas” Mame’s motto is “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” This attitude shines out of her as she rises up against the depression and leads a song of victory against hard times.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Another song written for a musical, this song was composed by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin for The MGM Movie Meet Me In St Louis. The movie tells the story of a family in St Louis just before the opening of the worlds fair. Judy Garland plays Esther Smith who has been smitten by the “Boy Next Door” and is doing her best to win his heart. She does succeed but on Halloween her father announces that his firm is moving him to New York and the family would move right after Christmas. Esther and her family are crushed, they don’t want to go, but realizing they need to support their father they come together. On Christmas Eve the youngest of the family, Tootie, is sitting in her window on Christmas Eve grieving about leaving the only home she had ever known. Esther comes and sits beside her and sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

Garland did not like the original lyrics for this song. They were very sad and since it was 1944 and America was still fighting the Second World War, she felt a sad song was just not right. She won that argument as her soon to be husband and director Vincent Minnelli agreed with her. Blane and Martin went back and reworked the song making it more hopeful for the troubled time. Meet Me In St Louis would go on to be a huge part of movie history and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas would go on to make Christmas History.

White Christmas

There is one lyricist and composer that shined more than any other during the first half of the 20th century that artist is Irving Berlin. Berlin was responsible for many hits of his time including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band“, “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and a song many feel should be America’s National Anthem, “God Bless America” in 1941 Berlin would write the song, “White Christmas.”

White Christmas was written for a movie called Holiday Inn which starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The story was about a young man, Jim Hardy, who is fed up with working day to day and opens an Inn, the gimmick is that he would only open his Inn on holidays. Being a song and dance man as well as a composer Jim Hardy writes songs for his inn for every holiday. For the scene that takes place at Christmas he writes the song White Christmas.

In the movie the song is first sung by Hardy for a woman he is falling in love with. He is sitting at the piano next to a Christmas tree with a roaring fire. In this Christmas Card set America is first introduced to a song that would become legend and for many years would be the best selling single of all time.

Silver Bells

The year is 1951. The musical Guys and Dolls has already made it has a hit on Broadway, and being based on a Damon Runyon story many studios had vied for the right to film other stories by the author. One studio gets the right to film The Lemon Drop Kid and hires Bob Hope as the movies title character.

The Lemon Drop Kid is about a man who talks people into betting on horses so that he can have a share of their winnings. He accidentally talks a gangster’s girl friend into betting $2000.00 on a horse that loses. The gangster, not being very happy with “the Kid” gives him until Christmas, 23 days, to make the money he would have won if his girlfriend had bet the money on the horse he told her to. The amount of winnings would have been $10,000.00. If The Lemon Drop Kid doesn’t come up with the cash he would be killed.

The Kid is in a fix he goes to New York and figures out a scam to get the money. He opens an “old dolls home”. So he can collect the money he needs by using his friends to stand on corners as Santa Claus. His friends are under the impression he is on the level and back him up. While checking on his money raising Santas, along with his girl friend, he sees his friend Gloomy singing a rather bad version of Silver Bells. Gloomy is played by William Frawley who in the following year would go on to play Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy. For the Beginning Hope and Frawley sing the song in harmony and then Hope continues as he strolls thru the city with his girl friend.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Twelve Day of Christmas is either a song you love or hate and it is certainly one that never gets missed at Christmas. Whether it is song by a choir, by Mickey Mouse and friends or lately by Straight No Chaser the song is never missed at Christmas. Bu the twelve Days Of Christmas is not what it appears to be.

In the sixteenth century Catholics were still being harassed by the English Government. They were forbidden to practice their faith at all and if caught it would mean death. This death sentence was not only for adults but children as well. Catholics had to go underground in order to keep their faith. They prayed and said Mass secretly and not wanting to put their children in danger taught them their catechism secretly as well. The Twelve days of Christmas is not about a young girl receiving gifts from her guy, but rather The Teachings of The Roman Catholic Church. Here’s how it beaks down.

  • The Partridge In a Pair Tree represents the death of Jesus on the cross
  • The Two Turtle Doves represents The Old and New Testaments
  • Three French Hens represented the gifts of the three Wisemen, Gold Frankincense and Myrrh
  • Four Calling Birds were meant to be The Four Gospels, Matthew Mark, Luke and John.
  • Five Golden Rings represents the first five books of Moses or the books of the law, Genesis Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
  • Six Geese A Laying represents the fact that God made the world in six days.
  • Seven Swans a swimming represent the seven gifts of The Holy Spirit, prophesy, service, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership and mercy.
  • The Eight Maids a Milking stands for fallen man. Work with livestock and being a woman were two of the lowest places in society at that time. This showed Jesus came to save everyone.
  • Nine Ladies Dancing, referred to the nine fruits of the spirit, love joy peace patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
  • The Ten Lords A Leaping were the ten commandments
  • Eleven Pipers Piping actually represented Jesus’ faithful disciples, since Judas betrayed Jesus he is not included.
  • Twelve Drummers Drumming was actually a representation of the beliefs of the Catholic Church, The Apostles Creed The creed has twelve elements.

This song not only taught young Catholics their faith but it also saved their lives.

This list could go on and on and include hundreds of both songs and carols as more are produced every year. If you would like to learn more about songs and traditions of Christmas, I would recommend three books by Ace Collins “Stories Behind The Great Songs of Christmas“, “More Stories Behind The Great Songs of Christmas” and “Stories Behind The Great Traditions of Christmas.” This author is grateful to Ace Collins as much of the research done for this article comes from his books.

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