The Apostles sang songs of praise, many based on the Psalms. As founders of the churches, their enthusiasm inspired their new congregations into song. But unfortunately they did not leave us any copies of the musical scores.
One of the earliest known Christmas songs is from the 4th Century, Jesus refulsit omnium, composed by St. Hilary of Poitiers. During the 12th Century, St Francis of Assisi formally introduced Christmas carols to church services. As patron of the arts, he inspired the composers and poets of the day to deliver Christmas music. The lighter joyous Christmas songs were introduced many years later in Renaissance Italy – the 1400s, the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo The earliest known copy of an English carol was written by Ritson about 1410. Throughout the years, monks also contributed significantly in composing music themes from the Bible.
When Johannes Gutenberg started his printing press rolling in 1454 copies of carols could be distributed fairly freely. However, keep in mind that Christmas celebrations were suppressed by purists at that time; Christmas did not become widely popular until late last century. Thus, many of the Christmas carols that we know today are not quoted directly from the Bible and were composed fairly recently.
Carols are banned but bounce back
Christmas carols were banned between 1649 and 1660 in England by Oliver Cromwell who thought that Christmas should be a solemn day. (Cromwell also abolished the monarchy.) When Protestants, inspired by Martin Luther, took to the joy of Christmas carols, many had to flee Europe under pressure from the Catholic Church. They took the Christmas carols with them to their new homes across the world. In 1649, John de Brebeur wrote the first American Christmas carol, called Jesus is Born.
Fortunately, in Europe, when carols couldn’t be sung in Churches, they found a stage elsewhere. The world’s most famous religious play, the Passion Play, was staged in Oberammergau, Germany in 1634 (and has been performed every 10 years since). In the 1700s, the music by Mendelssohn and Handel was adapted and used as Christmas carols.
Georg Friederich Hndel was born in Germany in 1685. The Royal Houses of Britain and Europe had always been closely interrelated, and the Act of Settlement of 1701 secured the Protestant succession of Anne to the Crown. Hndel, who had studied and performed in Europe, left Italy early in 1710 for Hanover, where he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Elector, George Louis. In August 1714, at the death of Queen Anne, George became George I, king of Britain. Hndel followed George and adopted British nationality. By invitation of the Duke of Devonshire, who was anxious to further music in Dublin, Hndel moved to Ireland. In 1742, he gave the first performance of the Messiah in the Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin in aid of several charities. By 1170, the famous Messiah was performed in Colonial America, 2 years before its first performance in his native Germany.
Hndel died in 1759 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, recognized in England as the greatest composer of his day. His Messiah was as popular then as Bing Crosby’s White Christmas is today.
Silent Night, Holy Night
Perhaps the best known Christmas carol is Silent Night, written in 1818 by an Austrian assistant priest Joseph Mohr. He was told the day before Christmas that the church organ was broken and would not be repaired in time for Christmas Day. Saddened, he sat down to write three stanzas that could be sung by choir to guitar music. “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” was heard for the first time at that Midnight Mass in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria. The congregation listened as the voices of the Fr. Joseph Mohr and the choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber, rang through the church to the accompaniment of Fr. Mohr’s guitar. Today, Silent Night, Holy Night is sung in more than 180 languages by millions of people.
The popularity of Christmas was further spurred on in 1820 by Washington Irving’s book The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall. In 1834, Britain’s Queen Victoria brought her German husband, Prince Albert, into Windsor Castle, reintroducing the Christmas tree and carols to the British Empire. In 1837, T.H. Hervey’s The Book of Christmas became a best seller. Printed books were more popular then ever. The Bible was selling marvelously well. Christmas was here to stay. But it was another title that took Christmas right into people’s homes.
“Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia,
Christ the Saviour is born!
Christ the Saviour is born.
Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth.
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth.”
“A Christmas Carol”
Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1834. Dickens was one of the first to show his readers a new way of celebrating the old Yule holiday in modern ways. He adapted the 12-day Yule feast to a one-day party any family could hold in their own home instead of gathering together an entire village, as was the tradition. Dickens introduced the “nuclear family” of Fred, the Cratchits, and Scrooge into a rewarding Christmas environment. A Christmas Carol is filled with magic, mystery, and song. The joyous carol had come home.
Christmas carols: big business
Oliver Cromwell might be turning in his grave. The biggest selling Christmas single of all time is Bing Crosby’s White Christmas, soundtrack of the holiday movie classic Holiday Inn. More than 30 million copies have been sold. (In fact, only Elton John’s Candle in the Wind ’97 has sold more copies, at 33 million.) Every Christmas season, record companies rush to release Christian and secular Christmas songs by artists young and old.
The word “carol” is derived from the old French word caroller, which means dancing around in a circle. It was derived from the Latin choraula, which in turn was derived from the Greek choraules.
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was written in 1849 by Edmund Hamilton Sears. The score was provided the next year by Richard Storrs Willis, a New York organist.
In 1865, after a trip to the Holy Land, Rector Phillips Brooks wrote the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Three years later, Lewis Redner wrote the score.
The most popular Christian carols:
Silent Night, Holy Night
O Come All Ye Faithful
O Holy Night
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
Little Town of Bethlehem
Angels From the Realms of Glory
The twelfth day of Christmas
Santa Claus is coming to town
Go Tell It On the Mountain
Away in a manger
Joy To the World
What Child Is This
The First Noel
Most popular secular carols:
The Twelve Days of Christmas
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
We Wish You A Merry Christmas
Blue Christmas by Elvis Presley
I’ll Be Home for Christmas (made famous during WWII)