Christmas carols relate to the Nativity and were introduced into church services in the 12th Century by St Francis of Assisi. Carol derives from the French word “caroller” and means dancing around in a circle and eventually the term included music and lyrics. In Cromwell’s stern Protestant England (17th century), carols were banned and subsequently many of the very old Christmas carols were lost. Much of the Christmas tradition is pagan and one of the best known carols, The Holly and the Ivy is thought to have Pagan origins. The author and composer remain unknown but it was published by Cecil Sharp in the 19th century.
Singing carols became popular during the reign of Queen Victoria and came as a welcome relief from the sombre hymns Christians sang throughout the rest of the year. When Jan van Wynkyn (known as Wynkyn de Worde and the apprentice to William Caxton) printed a collection of Christmas carols in 1521 more people were able to appreciate them. Ding dong merrily on high is thought to be French and dates to the sixteenth century. In 1581 the music for Ding Dong was used for a French dance (1581) called 'Bransle de l'Official'. A Bransle was a dance similar to a gavotte or bourrée. In Shakespeare it is called a Brawl, also known as Branle, Brantle. The composer is unknown but the words were written by George Radcliffe Woodward.
Joy to the World is a great favourite and was written in 1719, by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and the music was by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759).
Some experts believe O’ Come all ye faithful had its origins in the 13th Century and was a Franciscan hymn but it is more than likely to be more recent. The carol was written in Latin “Adeste Fideles” and has been attributed to John Wade (1711 - 1786), and the music was composed by fellow John Reading in the early 1700s. Handel used part of the tune of 'Adeste, fideles' in one of his operas. Then in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Rev. Frederick Oakley translated the original Latin into O Come All Ye Faithful.
Several carols originated in the US and the 19th century was a popular time to write a Carol. Philadelphian, Rector Phillips Brooks went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was so moved he composed a poem in celebration. That was in 1868, three years later, he was preparing a Christmas service and asked the church organist (Lewis Redner 1831-1908) to compose some music so the Sunday school choir could sing it. The carol was O’ Little town of Bethlehem.
The first US carol to gain popularity was We three kings of orient are, it was written in 1857 by Rev. John Henry Hopkins (1820 - 1891). He wrote it for a Christmas pageant.
Deck the halls is Welsh in origin and was reputed to have come from a tune called "Nos Galan" dating back to the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth century Mozart used the tune for a violin and piano duet . The lyrics to Once in Royal David City were written by Mrs. C.F. Alexander (1818 - 1895 ) The music was composed by H.J. Gauntlett and the carol is believed to have first been published in the early nineteenth century. J.P. McCaskey is sometimes credited with the lyrics but he only edited the Franklin Square Song Collection in which the lyrics were first published.
Silent Night is considered the best-known Christmas carol in the world and started life as a simple poem, Stille Nacht and was written in 1816. The poet was an Austrian priest called Joseph Mohr. On Christmas Eve in 1818 Joseph Mohr gave the poem to his friend Franz Xavier Gruber who composed the melody for the Midnight Mass. 'Silent Night', was arranged for two solo voices and choir, with guitar accompaniment, since the church organ was out of order. Silent Night international appeal was poignantly highlighted during World War I (and later conflicts) when on Christmas Eve on the battlefield the Allies and the enemy forces both laid down their arms and together sang 'Silent Night' (Stille Nacht) across No Man's Land.
God rest ye merry gentlemen was published in 1833 when it appeared in "Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern," a collection of seasonal carols gathered by William B. Sandys. The lyrics are traditional olde English and are reputed to date back to the 15th century although the author is unknown. It is believed that this particular carol was sung to the gentry by town watchmen who earned additional money during the Christmas season.
Ave Maria was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and written by a Scotsman. Franz Schubert (1797-1828) composed the music circa 1825 when he was twenty-eight years old. It was written for voice and piano and first published in 1826 as Op 52 no 6. Franz Schubert wrote the music for an excerpt from the poem "The Lady of the Lake" by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), which was translated into German.
Once in Royal David city was originally written as poem by Cecil Frances Alexander. The carol was first published in 1848 in Miss Cecil Humphreys' hymnbook Hymns for little Children (1849). Henry John Gauntlett set it to music.
Worth a listen:
Jose Carreras, Natalie Cole, Placcido Domingo
The Holly and the Ivy
Joy to the World
O Come All Ye Faithful
Jo Stafford & Frank Sinatra
O Little Town of Bethlehem
We Three Kings of Orient
Deck the halls
King’s College Choir
Once in Royal David’s City
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen