The Origins of 10 Popular Christmas Carols

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You've sung them while clutching cups of hot cocoa, cozying up around a fire, or stomping through snowdrifts. You've heard them played in shopping malls, churches, and holiday parties. You know all their words by heart. But do you know how some of the world's best-known Christmas carols were created? 

1. Silent Night

The legend behind one of the most popular Christmas carols in the world plays out as a sort of Christmas miracle. The story goes that Father Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Austria, was determined to have music at his Christmas Eve service, even though the organ at his beloved St Nicholas Church was broken. So, he penned a poem and asked his friend Franz Gruber to compose a score for it that would not demand an organ. The truth; however, is a little less dramatic. 

In 1816, the Catholic priest wrote the poem "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" while stationed at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria. When he transferred to St. Nicholas's two years later, he did ask Gruber to help him write guitar music for the poem, which the two performed—backed by a choir—on Christmas Eve of 1818. "Silent Night" was translated into English more than 40 years later by Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, who is responsible for the version Americans favor. The song has been translated into 142 languages to date. 

2. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Penned by James "Haven" Gillespie, this jolly tune was first performed on American singer Eddie Cantor's radio show in 1934. But for all its mirth, its inspiration came from a place of grief. In his book Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Ace Collins explains how Gillespie was a vaudevillian-turned-songwriter who'd fallen on hard times, both financially and personally. Gillespie got the call to pen a Christmas tune for Cantor just after learning his brother had died. 

Initially, he rejected the job, feeling too overcome with grief to consider penning a playful holiday ditty. But a subway ride recollecting his childhood with his brother and his mother's warnings that Santa was watching changed his mind. He had the lyrics in 15 minutes, then called in composer John Coots to make up the music that would become a big hit within 24 hours of its debut. 

3. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

The earliest incarnation of this carol was a poem penned in 1739 by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. However, the original opening line as it appeared in his collection Hymns and Sacred Poems was "Hark how all the welkin rings," using a rarely invoked term for heaven. Anglican preacher and Wesley contemporary George Whitefield tweaked the opening line to the titular one we know today.   

In these early versions, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" was sung to several different tunes, including "New Britain." The jauntier tempo it's sung to today came from German composer Felix Mendelssohn. More than 100 years after it was written, English musician William H. Cummings paired the carol to Mendelssohn's cantata Fetgesang. While this is the variant that has caught on, it is a development unlikely to be appreciated by Wesley or Mendelssohn. The former believed the hymn was best sung slowly, while the latter was a strictly secular musician.

4. Deck The Halls

This jaunty tune dates back to sixteenth century Wales, where its melody and much of the lyrics were pinched from the New Year's Eve song "Nos Galan." Lines like "Oh! how soft my fair one's bosom/ Fa la la la la la la la la," were transformed into Yuletide wishes like "Deck the halls with boughs of holly/ 
Fa la la la la la la la la." This musical makeover was done by Scottish folk music scribe Thomas Oliphant, who built his reputation on old melodies with new lyrics. In 1862, his "Deck the Hall" was published in Welsh Melodies, Vol. 2. He'd go on to become a renowned translator of songs as well as a lyricist for the court of Queen Victoria. 

But Oliphant's version is not the one most commonly sung today. Now called "Deck the Halls," lines like "Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel," have been swapped for "Don we now our gay apparel." This variant became popular from revised music sheet printings made in 1877 and 1881.

5. Good King Wenceslas

This unconventional but beloved carol dates back to 1853 when English hymnwriter John Mason Neale first penned its lyrics. Set to the tune of the 14th-century carol "The Time Is Near For Flowering," "Good King Wenceslas" focuses on the journey of a kind man who set out in terrible weather on the post-Christmas holiday of Saint Stephen's Day to provide aid to poor neighbors. 

This titular "king" was a real man, Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, who ruled from 924 to 935, when he was assassinated by his own brother, Boleslav the Cruel.  Unlike his nefariously nicknamed sibling, Wenceslaus was adored by his subjects. His great acts of charity led to him posthumously being declared a king, and an eventual upgrade to sainthood. He is now the patron saint to the Czech Republic.

6. All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth

This saccharine song is sung from the perspective of a child with a simple wish, and a fleet of such children was in fact its inspiration. In 1944, grade school teacher Donald Yetter Gardner and his wife Doris sat down with a group of second-graders in Smithtown, New York, to help them compose a song for Christmas. While there are different versions of the origin, they all involve a bunch of children saying, "All I want for Christmas is…" It's not so much that any students wished for those absent front teeth, but more that Gardner was charmed by their requests hindered by toothless lisping. 

As Gardner told it, he went home that night and in just 30 minutes penned the Christmas tune that would earn him royalties until his death in the fall of 2004. A performance at his school of the song led to a meeting with Witmark music company, and ultimately to Spike Jones and his City Slickers recording the ditty in 1948. Gardner gave up his teaching job to become a music consultant and editor, and later remarked in awe of his own success, "I was amazed at the way that silly little song was picked up by the whole country."

7. Jingle Bells

Though one of the most popular non-religious Yuletide tunes, "Jingle Bells" was not originally conceived for Christmas time at all. Penned by James Lord Pierpont in 1850s Savannah, Georgia, the song originally titled "The One Horse Open Sleigh" was intended to celebrate Thanksgiving. The local Unitarian church where he'd later play the song on the organ boasts historical markers declaring it the birthplace of "Jingle Bells." However, some sources insist Pierpont was belting the memorable melody as early as 1850, when he still lived in Medford, Massachusetts. Debate still rages about the true birthplace of the song.

"Jingle Bells" was renamed in 1857 when its lyrics and notes were first published. Decades passed before it rose to prominence. Yet it made history on December 16, 1965, becoming the first song broadcast in space. The crew of Gemini 6 followed reports of seeing Santa Claus with an improvised version of "Jingle Bells," which included bells and a harmonica that they had snuck onboard. Mission control responded to the surprise serenade with, "You're too much, 6." 

8. O Tannenbaum

Commonly translated as "O Christmas Tree," this carol comes from Germany. The earliest version of the song dates back to the 16th century, when Melchior Franck wrote a folk song about the tradition of bringing a small fir tree into one's home to decorate and sit beside the seasonal nativity scene. This decorating tradition and its celebratory song moved from Germany to the U.S. along with its emigrants.

Revisions to the lyrics were made in 1819 by Joachim August Zarnack, and in 1824 by Leipzig organist Ernst Anschütz. As Christmas tree trimming caught on in the 1800s, "O Tannenbaum" grew in popularity. In the past century, the song has been included on countless Christmas albums as well as in such family entertainment as Disney's Swiss Family Robinson, Ernest Saves Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. 

9. O Little Town of Bethlehem

This religious carol tells the tale of the birth of Jesus, and was inspired by a pilgrim's moving Christmas Eve experience in the Holy Lands.

Phillip Brooks was a distinguished man of faith and intellect. A Boston-born Episcopalian preacher, he'd earned a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of Oxford, taught at Yale University, and publically advocated against slavery during the Civil War. But he's best known for penning "O Little Town of Bethlehem" after a life-changing journey. 

In 1865, Brooks rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he participated in the Church of the Nativity's five-hour long Christmas Eve celebration, complete with hymns. Returning home, this experience proved so profound that he channeled it into the song sung in churches to this day. Its first public performance was held three years later, performed by the children's choir of his church on December 27th.

10. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

A carol that is at once hopeful and mournful, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas"s lyrics were penned by Hugh Martin for a scene in the 1944 movie musical Meet Me In St. Louis. Judy Garland sings the bittersweet song to her little sister, trying to cheer her up as both lament their family's move away from their hometown. But Garland and director Vincente Minnelli weren't happy with Martin's early, much more maudlin drafts. 

These included lines that Martin would later describe as ''hysterically lugubrious," like ''Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last.... Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more.'' 

Martin initially refused to revise the lyrics, but a blue talking to from actor Tom Drake set him straight. "He said, 'You stupid son of a bitch!'" Martin recollected, "'You're gonna foul up your life if you don't write another verse of that song!''' Ultimately, Martin gave the song a more hopeful leaning, first for the movie then again in 1957 at the request of Frank Sinatra. For Ol' Blue Eyes, he changed "We'll have to muddle through somehow" to the more jolly "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." The song has since became a standard, in both forms.

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December 16, 2014 - 8:00am
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