The History of Christmas Carols

Christmas Carols… love them or loathe them, it’s inevitable that you’re going to hear Christmas Carols in the coming weeks. I love Christmas Carols which is probably a good thing because I start listening to them in July in preparation for December services! Whatever your disposition is towards them, I hope you enjoy reading this brief history about Christmas Carols.

There’s so much information about where Carols started and about their musical evolution. The first Christmas song was written in 129AD by a Roman Bishop who said a song called ‘Angels Song’ should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another early Christmas song was written in 760AD by Comas of Jerusalem. However, these early Christmas Carols (as we now call them) were not widely sung nor circulated as they were written and sung in Latin rather than the common language of the people.

Around 1223, St. Francis of Assisi started Nativity Plays in Italy. During these plays people sang songs or ‘canticles’ that told the story of Jesus birth. These carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries. During the 13th to 18th century there were many Christmas Carols written in Europe but not many of these early Carols are known today. It wasn’t until the late 1800s and into the 1900s that the popular Christmas Carols we now sing were written.

It’s been noted that throughout history the lyrics of Christmas Carols make use of Christian ideas as well as political and even pagan imagery. For such a long time I really believed there were in fact exactly THREE wise men that visited Jesus! But, where in the bible does it say that!? When reading lyrics with a Bible in-hand, you see that creative licence has been taken in some songs. That’s a reason why we choose carols carefully for Sunday services and even at times slightly alter lyrics.

I could go on and on about the rich history of Christmas Carols. One day I’d like to share with you one of the most fascinating Carols stories; that of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ when it was sung on the Eve of Christmas during the First World War. But that’s a story for another time…

I hope in the lead up to Christmas you have opportunity to enjoy Christmas Carols and appreciate the rich history of where they’ve come from.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” Luke 2:13-14

With Christmas cheer,