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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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9 Common Misperceptions About Religious Observances
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
A view of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound on the first Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on May 18, 2018.
AHMAD GHARABLI, AFP/Getty Images

Religion can be confusing. Not only do many religions have similar philosophies and holidays, for many of the world's most widely practiced religions, the details for observing certain holidays or rites can differ based on location, denomination, or modernization. And for those who are less familiar with a particular religion, the details can be easy to overlook. From Ramadan to Advent to Bathing the Buddha, we break down nine common misconceptions surrounding popular religious observances.

1. WHAT'S WRONG: RAMADAN IS A HOLIDAY.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
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"In American thinking, we think of [Ramadan] as a holiday because that's the way we associate important religious dates as holidays," Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, told NPR. "It's not a holiday in the sense that life goes on. The last day of the holy month, which is Eid ul-Fitr, is a holiday and there are periods in between that are holidays. But as a whole, it's not a holiday."

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar (which is a lunar calendar, which explains why the date moves in relation to the Gregorian calendar). It's significant because the Qur'an was first revealed, and the gates of Heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed, during this time.

Lailat al Qadr is the actual night of the revelation of the Qur'an, and praying on that night is said to be "better than a thousand months." But no one knows what night it actually was, only that it was probably in the last 10 days of the month. As such, the last 10 days of Ramadan are generally treated as special days.

The main holiday associated with Ramadan is Eid al-Fitr (or Eid ul-Fitr), which marks the end of the month and the end of fasting.

2. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALL ABOUT NOT EATING.

A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Turkey.
A Muslim family sits around an iftar meal during the month of Ramadan in a park outside a mosque in Diyabakir, Turkey
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In the West, much of the attention is focused on how, for the month of Ramadan, Muslims don't eat or drink from sunrise to sunset. But that's only part of the story—Muslims are also supposed to abstain from sex, fighting, smoking, bad thoughts, and sometimes even TV during the time of the fast. According to Nasr, "It's a period of spiritual reflection," of which not eating is a part.

But not all Muslims abstain from eating during Ramadan. Some Ismaili Muslims abstain from eating on only a handful of days throughout the year, and during Ramadan focus instead on those other forms of fasting.

3. WHAT'S WRONG: THE RAMADAN FAST IS ALWAYS FROM SUNRISE TO SUNSET.

The suun setting over mountains.
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The majority of the time, this is true. But for Muslim communities in the far north, fasting from sunrise to sunset can be a problem—in the summer, the sun might not set for days or weeks, and in the winter the sun may never rise. Some tough it out, while others follow the time of the nearest major city, nearest Muslim country, or Mecca.

4. WHAT'S WRONG: ADVENT STARTS ON DECEMBER 1.

A child pulls a drawer out of an advent calendar.
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Virtually all the Advent calendars available in the market start on December 1, but this is only rarely correct. Advent actually starts on the Sunday nearest the Feast of St. Andrew, which is November 30. It's believe that the misconception can be traced back to a German man named Gerhard Lang. Lang, inspired by the Advent calendars his mother made him as a boy, began mass producing the calendars in the early 20th century; he eventually decided to standardize the calendar as starting at December 1.

5. WHAT'S WRONG: LENT IS THE 40 DAYS BETWEEN ASH WEDNESDAY AND EASTER.

A palm cross in a dish of ashes on top of a green palm leaf.
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According to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, "Strictly speaking, Lent ends with the beginning of the Triduum on Holy Thursday. The Ordo [the official book that details such issues] notes: 'Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord's Supper exclusive on Holy Thursday.'" [PDF]

The change to Holy Thursday only dates to the 1960s and is only true for Roman Catholics (who point out that a distinction is made between liturgical Lent and the Lenten fast), but even among other Western churches the definition of Lent being the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter isn't quite right. There are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter (not including Easter, as traditionally Lent ended on Easter Saturday). The other six days are on Sundays, when fasting is forbidden.

6. WHAT'S WRONG: THE HAJJ IS THE WORLD'S LARGEST RELIGIOUS GATHERING.

The Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
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Every year in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, 2 to 3 million Muslims gather for the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite that number, it is not the largest religious gathering in the world. Kumbh Mela brings Hindus together every three years at one of four alternating sites, with the main Kumbh Mela occurring in Allahabad; In 2013, it counted approximately 120 million people. According to the BBC, the story of Kumbh Mela is that gods and demons fought over a pitcher of nectar and a few drops fell on each of the four cities that now host the festival, and during the festival the water becomes the nectar.

7. WHAT'S WRONG: BATHING THE BUDDHA IS A UNIVERSAL CELEBRATION.

An Indonesian Buddhist bathes the Buddha statue during a Vesak ceremony in Mojokerto, Indonesia.
Robertus Pudyanto, Getty Images

One of the most well-known Buddhist celebrations in the West is Vesak (or Wesak), and one of the most well-known components of the day is Bathing the Buddha, where water gets poured over the Buddha to purify the mind.

But in reality the day is more complex than that. Vesak is a day that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. But Mahayana Buddhists view these three events as happening at three separate times, with only the Buddha's birthday occurring the same time as Vesak. In modern Western cities that have multiple Buddhist groups, the Mahayana tradition of Bathing the Buddha often gets combined with the Theravada celebration of Vesak, so much so that one Theravada Buddhist writing for the Huffington Post noted that he had never even heard of the Bathing the Buddha tradition as part of Vesak before college.

8. WHAT'S WRONG: RELIGIOUS OBSERVANCES ARE ALWAYS SPECIFIC TO THE RELIGION.

A Muslim man reads from the Koran at a Mosque in Nairobi on May 17, 2018 during the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
SIMON MAINA, AFP/Getty Images

While most of the time a religious holiday is exclusive to its religion, there are certain festivities that span across religions. The Muslim day of Ashura originated when Mohammed arrived in Medina and saw the Jews fasting in honor of Moses. Mohammed then ordered a fast as well. Today, scholars debate whether the Jews of Medina were celebrating Passover or Yom Kippur, but Ashura was originally based on a Jewish holy day.

9. WHAT'S WRONG: ALL MEMBERS OF A RELIGION CELEBRATE THE SAME HOLIDAYS.

Four burning candles for Diwali.
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Just as some holidays can spread across multiple religions, some holidays are not universally followed within the religion. Quakers, which are a denomination of Protestant Christians, have traditionally not celebrated Christmas or Easter because they consider every day a holy day. Traditionally, the people of Kerala in the south of India don't view Diwali as a major celebration, for reasons that are debated. And on the flip side, groups within a religion often have their own holidays, such as the Old Believers (a group of Eastern Orthodox Christians who split from the main branch) who celebrate holidays such as the Transfer of the Relics of St. Nicholas, commemorating the movement of the relics from Turkey to Italy.

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10 Other Mother’s Days from Around the World
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After her mother passed away in 1905, Anna Jarvis resolved to dedicate a day to her mother, and mothers everywhere. Little did she know, and evidently much to her chagrin, Mother’s Day fast became a commercial phenomenon. Its popularity spread worldwide and many countries, particularly in the Western world, adopted the second Sunday in May as their official Mother’s Day. But not every nation followed suit—perhaps to the chagrin of their local flower companies. In fact, Mother’s Day in many countries has little or nothing to do with Anna Jarvis’s creation, nor does it always occur in May. These are just a few of those other Mother’s Days.

1. UK // MOTHERING SUNDAY, FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT

The name may sound strikingly similar to its American counterpart, but the origins of Mothering Sunday are quite different. By most historical accounts, it was the Church of England that created Mothering Sunday to honor the mothers of England, and later to commemorate the “Mother Church” in all its spiritual nurturing glory. Hundreds of years ago, Christians were expected to make at least one return to their mother church each year. In other words, Mothering Sunday was the ultimate guilt trip to visit the woman or entity that gave them life. Was that so much to ask? The fourth Sunday of Lent became the designated day to make this journey, and remains the go-to holiday to celebrate Moms to this day.

2. THAILAND // MOTHER'S DAY, AUGUST 12

Her Majesty Sirikit the Queen of Thailand is also considered the mother of all her Thai subjects. In light of her royal maternal status, the Thai government made her birthday, August 12, Thailand’s official Mother’s Day in 1976. It remains a national holiday, celebrated countrywide with fireworks and candle-lighting. In related holidays, Father’s Day in Thailand falls on the current King’s birthday, December 5.

3. BOLIVIA // MOTHER'S DAY, MAY 27

During the struggle for independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many of the country's fathers, sons, and husbands were injured and killed on the battlefields. As the history is told to Bolivian students, one group of women from Cochabamba refused to stand idly by; on May 27, they banded together to fight the Spanish Army on Coronilla Hill. Though hundreds died in battle, the legacy of their contributions lives on thanks to a national law passed in the 1920s making the day on which the “Heroinas of Coronilla” took to the streets national Mother’s Day.

4. INDONESIA// MOTHER'S DAY OR WOMEN'S DAY, DECEMBER 22

Made official in 1953 by its president, Indonesia's Mother’s Day falls on the anniversary of the First Indonesian Women’s Congress (1928). The first convening of women in a governmental body is still considered pivotal in launching organized women’s movements throughout Indonesia. The holiday was created to celebrate the contributions of women to Indonesian society.

5. MIDDLE EAST (VARIOUS) // MOTHER'S DAY OR SPRING EQUINOX, MARCH 21

Egyptian journalist Mustafa Amin introduced the idea of a Mother’s Day to his home country, and it quickly spread throughout much of the region. Inspired by a story of a thankless widow ignored by an ungrateful son, Amin and his brother Ali successfully proposed a day in Egypt to honor all mothers. They decided the first day of spring, March 21, was most appropriate to celebrate the ultimate givers of life. It was first celebrated in Egypt in 1956, and is still observed throughout the region from Bahrain to the United Arab Emirates to Iraq.

6. NEPAL // MOTHER PILGRIMAGE FORTNIGHT OR MATA TIRTHA SNAN, LAST DAY OF THE MAISHAKH MONTH (USUALLY BETWEEN LATE APRIL AND EARLY MAY)

Stemming from an ancient Hindu tradition, this festival of honoring mothers is still commonly celebrated in Nepal. The holiday honors both the living and the dead equally. Traditionally, those honoring mothers who have passed away make a pilgrimage to the Mata Tirtha ponds near Kathmandu. A large carnival is also held in the Mata Tirtha village. Children show their mothers appreciation with sweets and gifts.

7. ISRAEL // FAMILY DAY OR THE HOLIDAY FORMERLY KNOWN AS MOTHER'S DAY, 30TH DAY OF SHEVAT (USUALLY FEBRUARY)

Henrietta Szold never had any children of her own, but that didn’t stop her from touching the lives of many young ones. Szold played an active role in the Youth Aliya organization, through which she helped protect many Jewish children from the horrors of the Holocaust. This earned her a reputation as the “mother” of all children. In the 1950s, an 11-year-old girl named Nechama Biedermann wrote to the children’s publication Haaretz Shelanu proposing they make the date of Szold’s death Israel’s national Mother’s Day. The newspaper readily agreed, as did the rest of the country. Despite the shift to a more gender-balanced Family Day, the holiday’s popularity has waned over the years.

8. ETHIOPIA // MOTHER'S DAY OR ANTROSHT, WHEN THE RAINY SEASON ENDS (OCTOBER/NOVEMBER)

Rather than tying themselves down to a specific date, Ethiopians wait out the wet season then trek home for a large, three-day family celebration. This feast is known as “Antrosht.” Unlike some western Mother’s Days, the mother plays a key role in preparing the traditional meals for the festival.

9. FRANCE // MOTHER'S DAY OR FÊTE DES MÈRES, LAST SUNDAY IN MAY

Celebrating a few Sundays later than the rest of the world feels so, well, French. However, according to one blogger, they may have beat all of us to the punch—sort of. France has a storied history of attempts to create a national Mother’s Day. Napoleon tried to mandate a national maternal holiday at the turn of the 19th century. But things ended up not working out so well for him and his holiday. More than a century later, Lyon held its own Mother’s Day celebration to honor women who lost sons to the First World War. It was not until May 24, 1950 that the Fête des Mères became an officially decreed holiday.

(The holiday is mandated to occur on the last Sunday in May. However, if that Sunday is also the Pentecost, then Mother’s Day is pushed to the first Sunday in June.)

10. NICARAGUA // MOTHER'S DAY OR DÍA DE MADRE, MAY 30

In the 1940s, President General Anastasio Somoza Garcia declared Mother’s Day in honor of the birthday of his mother-in-law. Despite its brown-nosing origins, it remains a big deal in Nicaragua.

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