Christmas carols carry a distinctive kind of midwinter magic, conjuring images of snow-tipped forest trees and candle-lit beginnings. They’ve undoubtedly become a central part of the festive season, ringing out in churches and homes while brightening Christmases all round the nation. 

With Christmas fast approaching, what better time is there to reflect on their origins? Many themes swirl round their mystical beginnings, from dubious author attributions to continuously evolving traditions. Much is unknown, yet there is much to be found.

So, grab your mulled wine and mince pie and let me walk you through a short history of the Christmas carol. I’ll reveal the stories behind some of the nation’s most-loved music, starting from the Annunciation and following through to Christmas Day.

A quick introduction to the carol

The carol (the word probably stemming from the French caroler) originated as a celebratory, pagan song which was accompanied by dancing. These songs were composed in the traditional verse-and-refrain format, and were sung across all four seasons. Though often heard during celebrations of the Winter Solstice, they had no correlation to Christmas or the Church. It was often sufficient to print just the name of a tune in order for people to recognise and sing it, leading to a huge musical variety and no real standardisation; such is the evolving nature of the oral tradition. 

The Angels' Hymn, composed in 129 AD, is widely recognised as the oldest Christmas carol, since the Bishop of Rome of 336 AD declared that “in the Holy Night of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour, all shall solemnly sing the Angels' Hymn. The following centuries saw the development of similar august, religious hymns, famously including Jesus Refulsit Omnium. However, it’s only in 1426 that a specifically Christmas related carol was cited in English when John Audlay, a Shropshire poet and clergyman, listed 25 ‘caroles of Cristemas’ among his works.

The Reformation saw secular songs and popular chorales integrated into worship, with the Puritans famously banning Christmas in 1644 (the Restoration bringing the tradition back in 1660). Around this time, the French began to create rustic Noëls - songs thematically exploring the Nativity - and this trend extended across Europe. A particularly prolific era for bringing our contemporary carols to light was the 19th century, as Christmas became a more established public holiday. Publications like the English Hymnal and the two ‘University’ carol books broadened the acceptance of this well-known music to all sectors of society.

The Annunciation: Gabriel’s Message 

An enchanting folk carol from the Basque country, Gabriel’s Message relates the story of the Annunciation, where  the archangel Gabriel reveals to the Virgin Mary that she was to give birth to Jesus. A gently lilting rhythm is complemented by a plaintive, minor-flavoured mode, as the themes of the Christmas story are brought to light. Originally based upon the 13th/14th century medieval hymn Angelus ad Virginem, the carol was first collected by composer Charles Bordes and published in 1895. Upon visiting the Basque region at wintertime, novelist and clergyman Sabine Baring-Gould translated it loosely into English, while borrowing imagery from the Magnificat and Ave Maria. The poignant refrain closely imitates 15th century carols devoted to the Virgin Mary: “most highly-favoured lady; Gloria!”. Rustic and melancholy, yet hopeful in tone, this carol is not one to be missed.

Advent: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Another carol with a haunting and distinctive melody, O Come, O Come Emmanuel is firmly rooted in Christianity and the traditions of Advent. The music’s beginnings are enigmatic, potentially stemming from a 15th century French manuscript. However, the text was originally written in Latin under the title of Veni, Veni Emmanuel, with its earliest documentation going back to Germany in 1710. Its subject matter revolves around the ‘seven O’s (the great antiphons of Advent), a series of prayers supplicating Christ which are traditionally sung on 17-23rd December before and after the Magnificat at Vespers. The version we have today is mostly credited to clergymen Thomas Helmore’s 1851 record in The Hymnal Noted, where the well-known tune was combined with Neale’s English translation. Conveying anticipation for the birth and return of Christ while reminiscing upon a history of redemption, the carol evokes a deep sense of promise and expectation for what is yet to come. 

"...the carol evokes a deep sense of promise and expectation for what is yet to come"

Christmas Eve: O Little Town of Bethlehem

“I was roused from sleep late in the night, hearing an angel-strain whispering in my ear, and seizing a piece of music paper I jotted down the treble of the tune as we now have it. Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or its music would live beyond that Christmas of 1868”. So originated the melody of O Little Town of Bethlehem according to church organist Lewis Redner. The American bishop, Phillips Brooks, visited Bethlehem on Christmas Eve a few years previously and was inspired to write a poem for a Christmas service, asking Redner to set it to music. The tune came to the organist in a dream on December 24th and he wrote it the next morning, with the choristers singing it for the first time that very same Christmas season. Redner’s version is still commonly sung in the US (and can be found in covers by Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley), but the English variant has a different backstory. A decade after Brook’s death, Vaughan Williams collected a tune from Mr Garman of Forest Green, deriving from the folk song 'The Ploughboy’s Dream'. Published in the English Hymnal in 1906, it soon became the popular version sung in British services. Regardless of the tune in use, the carol cultivates a beautifully ethereal atmosphere, bringing a soothing sense of peace and comfort.

The night before Christmas: O Holy Night

O Holy Night’s history begins with the French poet, Placide Cappeau, who was asked to write a festive poem for the renovation of a church organ in his town. Using the book of Luke to tell the Christmas story, Cappeau imagined being at the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and produced an emotive and celebratory poem, “Minuit, chrétiens” (Midnight, Christians). Like O Come, O Come Emmanuel, the text evokes Christ as a saviour for mankind. The poem was later set to music by celebrated composer Adolphe Adam under the title “Cantique de Noël” and was released in 1847. The carol was first performed on a Christmas Eve midnight mass only a few weeks later to high acclaim. 

While the carol was enjoying wide-spread popularity, Church authorities suddenly discovered that Cappeau had atheist views and Adam was of Jewish origin (meaning he did not consider Jesus the son of God) and the song was instantly banned. However, in 1855, the priest John Sullivan Dwight introduced an English translation into America, the line “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother” strongly resonating with his abolitionist philosophy. The song began to chime with the people once more, and in 1871, a French soldier was rumoured to have left his trench during the Franco-Prussian war and started singing the opening lyics of “Cantique de Noël”. Legend has it that a German soldier answered with verses from a sacred German carol, and the fighting stopped for 24 hours in honour of Christmas Day. O Holy Night was also the first song to ever be broadcasted via radio waves; in 1906, Reginald Fessenden set up a microphone in his studio and played the song on his violin. The carol remains a worldwide favourite and its powerful message of joy, gratitude and love continues to be spread today.

Christmas Day: Hark! The Herald Angels sing


Mountain View

Be kind to yourself: An interview with Keval Shah

What would a Christmas carol service be without the triumphant ending of Hark! The Herald Angels sing? The song made its first appearance in the publication Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1739, with lyrics assembled by the founding fathers of Methodism, Charley Wesley and George Whitefield. The music itself was arranged by William Cummings, an adaptation of 'Vaterland, in deinen Gauen' from Felix Mendelssohn’s Festgang (also known as the Gutenberg Cantata). However, the lyrics have been rewritten over the years and have transformed far away from Wesley’s original “Hark, How all the Welkin Rings”, making the carol’s creation a collaborative process. The ‘Herald Angels’ are the angelic hosts from heaven who declare (i.e. 'herald’) the news of Christ’s birth, marking the carol as an explicit celebration of the Christmas story. The hymn has been present in virtually every carol book since 1861 and its glorious tone never fails to capture the timeless charm of the festive season.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this historical journey across a wide array of Christmas carols. Whether you’re celebrating at home or at uni, alone or with family, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and may the seasonal sounds of these festive songs ring brightly for you!