Christian scriptures detail a world of spirits and nine choirs of Angels who were sent by God into the lives of humankind. Legend tells that in Bethlehem, people heard the Angels sing one time in unison to announce the birth of the Christ Child. The words thought to ring out at that moment were: Gloria in exelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Therefore, this is considered to be the first Christmas carol.
According to ancient tradition, Christmas carols of all times and all nations should adhere strictly to the narrative of Saint Luke, which has three distinct points: the recitive of the Angel of the Lord, the choir of the multitudes of Angels and the reaction of the shepherds.
Christmastime music began with the litanies, or musical prayers, of the Christian Church. An early historian wrote that in approximately 100 A.D., the Bishop of Rome urged his people to sing "in celebration of the birthday of our Lord." By 400 A.D., priests would stroll around their parishes on Christmas Eve singing these Latin hymns.
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with being the "Father of Caroling." Only church officials had been encouraged to sing carols prior to the time of St. Francis. In 1223, however, the saint placed a creche (miniature Nativity scene) in a hermitage at Greechio, Italy. After this, many churches began displaying such scenes at Christmas and soon, people began to act out the events of the Holy Night. The actors composed Christmas carols to sing during their Nativity plays and, later, would stroll through the streets still singing. In that manner, did street-caroling come to be.
By the Middle Ages, wandering minstrels were traveling from hamlet to castle performing their carols. Later still, villages had their own bands of "waits." Waits were originally watchmen who patrolled the streets and byways of the old walled cities, keeping guard against fire and singing to while away the night hours. During the holiday season, the waits would include carols in their repertoires. Not everyone was delighted with this display of musical entertainment, however, and many townspeople complained, declaring they would rather get a good night's sleep than have somebody singing under their windows. Eventually the term was used to describe groups of musicians who sang and played at various civic events during the Christmas season.
The word "carol" derives from a Greek dance called a choraulein, which was accompanied by flute music. The dance later spread throughout Europe and became particularly popular by the French, who replaced the flute music with singing. Originally, people performed carols on many occasions during the year. By the 1600s, carols involved singing only and Christmas had become the chief holiday for these songs. Counted among the most favored of non-religious carols are "Jingle Bells" and "White Christmas," both of which first appeared as popular songs in the United States.
"Adeste Fideles," more commonly known as "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful," is not strictly
a Christmas carol but a Latin hymn of praise. It was composed by John Reading
in the 1700s. The tune first appeared in the collection known as "Cantus Diversi"
in 1751. The most familiar English version of this carol was translated by
Frederick Oakeley, but people sing it in many parts of the world and in many languages.
"The First Noel" is unknown in origin, except that it is believed to have come from the
West of England. It first appeared in 1833 in "Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern,"
a collection of seasonal songs gathered by W.B. Sandys.
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is an old English rhyme and dates at least as far back
as the 1500s. It is a carol of which the British people are particularly fond.
"Good Christian Men, Rejoice" was originally a very old Latin Christmas song called
In Dulci Jubilo. John Mason Neale translated the words around the middle
of the 1800s. The melody is believed to be German in origin and dates from
the 1300s or earlier.
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" was written by Charles Wesley (brother of John Wesley)
in 1739. The carol originally began with: "Hark, how all the welkin rings."
The tune for this song was taken from the "Festesang" by Mendelssohn.
"It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" was written by Edmund H. Sears in 1849. At the time,
Sears was a pastor in Wayland, Massachusetts. The music was provided by Richard S. Willis,
then editor of "Musical World," in his "Study Number 23." Uzziah Burnap arranged
this accompaniment to the lyrics in 1859.
"Joy To The World" was composed by the great English hymn writer, Isaac Watts.
It is based on the Ninety-Eighth Psalm and its words reflect the missionary spirit of
the early 1700s. Lowell Mason arranged the lyrics to music taken from several
choruses of the "Messiah" by Handel.
"O Little Town Of Bethlehem" was written by Phillips Brooks, a renowned Boston minister.
He composed the carol in 1867 for his Sunday School in Philadelphia, where he was
preaching at the time. Lewis Redner, organist of the church, wrote the tune.
"While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks" was among the first compositions produced
after the 1700s. Only the Psalms of David were sung in the Anglican Church prior to
that time. It was written by Nahum Tate in 1703 and the familiar melody used for this
carol was taken from "Siroe," an opera by Handel.
The origins of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and "Silent Night, Holy Night" are each
detailed in separate sections, accessible from the Main Christmas Page.