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Carol Singers

History of your favourite Christmas carols

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For many, Christmas is as much about singing carols as it is about chomping on mince pies and sipping mulled wine. Whilst the traditional festive songs blare out up and down the country every year, few know the fascinating history behind them.

Come with us as we discover the origins, context and provenance of some of our favourite Christmas carols.

Silent Night

Not only is Silent Night one of the most enduringly popular Christmas carols, which has been translated into over 300 languages, but it's also been designated by UNESCO as a treasured item of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Its origins begin in a small Alpine town in Austria. A young priest called Joseph Mohr penned a poem in German called Stille Nacht in 1816. Writing in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and the recent eruption of Indonesia's Mount Tambora, which had caused crops to fail across Europe, Mohr wished to raise the hopes of his congregation with his poetry.

In 1817, he teamed up with a friend and local organist, Franz Xaver Gruber, to convert his poem into a song. On Christmas eve, 1818, Silent Night was performed to Mohr’s congregation for the very first time.

The song spread to nearby valleys where travelling families of folk singers took the song across Europe and eventually to America.

During the First World War, the song was poignantly sung by both German and British soldiers during the famous Christmas Day Truce of 1914. Its enduring message of peace, even amongst great suffering, has transcended cultures and generations.

Away in a Manger

The origins of Away in a Manger are a little murkier. It first appeared in several American magazines in the 1880s. It had been sent to them by an anonymous donor, who claimed it had been penned by the 16th-century German religious reformer, Martin Luther.

Experts on Luther, however, dispute this claim leaving us to believe that the writer of this Christmas classic will forever remain an unknown American. What we do know is that during the 1890s the song swept across the United States.

In 1895, American composer William J. Kirkpatrick adapted the song and composed the melody that we know today. Published as part of a collection called ‘Around the World with Christmas’, Kirkpatrick’s take on Away in a Manger was later included in several hymn books, carrying the song beyond the confines of America and onto the rest of the world.

O Come All Ye Faithful

One of the oldest carols still popular today has one of the most fascinating backstories - O Come All Ye Faithful.

Originally written in Latin as Adeste Fideles, the text could date back as far as the mid-1600s. As for its author, myriad candidates have been suggested from King John IV of Portugal (a 17th-century amateur composer) to Cistercian monks. What we do know is that the earliest printed version of the lyrics was compiled during the mid-1700s by John Francis Wade, an English Catholic exile living in France.

Fascinatingly, some historians believe there is a secret hidden message in Wade’s version. Having fled to France after the Jacobite rising of 1745, it’s been argued that Wade hid subversive messages within the song to rally support for the exiled Bonnie Prince Charlie.

As for the tune, again no one knows for sure who composed it. A variety of names have been thrown into the hat including German composers Handel and Gluck.

As for its lasting legacy, O Come All Ye Faithful remains a carol service favourite due to its upbeat and jolly melody, often being left until last on the hymn sheet to ensure all are left with festive feelings of happiness and joy.

We Three Kings

We have to venture back across the Atlantic to uncover the origins of We Three Kings. Written and composed in 1857 for a New York Christmas pageant by American clergyman and hymn writer John Henry Hopkins Jr, We Three Kings became the first widely popular Christmas carol originating from the States.

Hopkins based the lyrics on the narrative of the journey of the Magi making their way to see the newborn baby Jesus, as mentioned in Mathew 2:1-12. Rather unusually for many carols, Hopkins composed both the lyrics and the music.

Such was the positivity around its reception, Hopkins decided to publish the carol in 1863 in his book Carols, Hymns, and Songs. Its popularity soon spread as it found its way into hymn sheets across the world.

Good King Wenceslas

This popular carol has one of the most strange, gruesome and un-Christmassy backstories. It's based on the life of Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, who lived during the early 900s AD.

Legend has it he was assassinated by his younger brother, Boleslaus the Cruel. After Wenceslaus’ death, sainthood beckoned and this popular martyr soon had people venerating his good deeds, especially in Bohemia and England.

‘His deeds I think you know better than I could tell you; for, as is read in his Passion, no one doubts that rising every night from his noble bed, with bare feet and only one chamberlain, he went around to God’s churches and gave alms generously to widows, orphans, those in prison and afflicted by every difficulty,’ wrote one 12th century preacher.

This legend became the foundation of the carol that was penned in 1853 by English priest and hymn writer John Mason Neale. The words were set to a 13th-century melody called 'Tempus adest floridum’, a tune about Eastertime.

Written for the Feast of St. Stephen (i.e. Boxing Day), its words also celebrate the long tradition of charitable giving on the Second Day of Christmas.

Wenceslas’s body now lies in St Vitus’s Cathedral in Prague. His Saint’s Day is also a public holiday in the Czech Republic.

The history of Christmas carols

Whether you’re listening to Silent Night, Jingle Bells or even a bit of Mariah, it’s an undeniable fact that that music is a massive part of the festive celebrations. Christmas carols have been around for centuries, but did you know we have to go back to ancient times to find their origin?


During Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival, devotees would worship Saturn around the winter solstice in the hopes of an abundant harvest. Many have cited the Roman tradition of Saturnalia as a pre-Christian version of Christmas which would have been similarly full of merriment and, crucially, song.

But songs are hard-wired into our genetic makeup and are a part of our oral history passed down through the generations. However, it’s likely that devotional songs have always been sung, especially on the shortest, darkest days of the year. So, it’s unlikely that Saturnalia was responsible for kick-starting the tradition of the Christmas carol, especially when we consider that most carols come from the 1800s.


Anglo-Saxons were predominantly illiterate, so any evidence of wassailing (the act of singing songs in and around the winter solstice) survives through tradition and in archaeological objects.

Wassailing may have been brought to these shores via the Vikings shortly after the Romans vacated, as the word is thought to derive from the Norse word ‘ves hail’ meaning ‘be well’. And, although there are some variations on the practice, the wassailing tradition appears to have its roots in apple orchards, where the fruit trees would be heartily toasted with drink and song to ward off evil spirits in the cold winter months to ensure an abundant crop later in the year.

In time, the wassailing revellers would leave the orchard and, armed with a large bowl filled to the brim with a potent punch, visit friends and neighbours to join them for a drink and a few convivial choruses of seasonal songs, just like the carol singers of today.

But not all wassailing was good-spirited. Some wassailers would gather outside the larger, better-off dwellings and, essentially, threaten the owners with mischief unless they had something in return. And if this sounds like trick or treating, some historians have suggested that the wassailing may even lie at its source, but that’s another story.

We Wish You a Merry Christmas?

This murky side of wassailing may even provide a link to one of our most popular carols. If we look a little more closely at the lyrics to We Wish You a Merry Christmas, there appears to be something rather sinister going on.

The chorus begins with the seemingly innocuous, ‘good tidings we bring, to you and your kin’, before demanding, ‘ bring us some figgy pudding’. The second chorus ends with a reminder that this is a group endeavour (‘for we all like our figgy pudding’) before a barely concealed threat completes the third chorus, ‘And we won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here’.

Little wonder then that wassailing was banned by many parishes during the medieval period but, if you’re lucky enough, you can still catch the odd wassailer in one of the cider-producing regions of the UK and maybe in one of the most popular carols sung at Christmas...

Deck the Halls

The English version of this ditty wasn’t published until 1862. It included the lines, ‘see the flowing bowl before us,’ and ‘laughing quaffing all together,’ which could easily refer to both the wassail and the wassailers respectively.

In addition to the opening lines, mindful of the ancient habit of decorating one’s property with evergreens during midwinter, it almost goes out of its way to not acknowledge Christmas, referring to it instead as ‘Yuletide’.

Christmas number ones

We can also see our former Christmas number one singles as an extension of the pre-Christian tradition of communal singing in the dark autumn/winter months. Many of these Christmas number ones, and more than a few almost-rans, have served as soundtracks to our Christmases’, even if the artists in question have faded into obscurity. They are, in many respects, the contemporary version of the Christmas carol and, similarly, employ both secular and religious themes.

A song for the festive season

Carol singers at Christmas are as much part of the celebrations as baubles, tinsel and granddad falling asleep in front of the television. Sure, Christmas as we know it may well have come from non-Christian traditions, but that’s missing the point.

Christmas is a time of coming together, to celebrate both the end and the beginning of the year during the darkest, coldest days of the calendar. And there’s no better way of honouring the occasion than with loved ones, a raised glass and belting out a preferred festive song.

Finally, the definition of 'carol' is a ‘joyful song’, which derives from ‘carole’, an old French word, which means to dance in a ring, which might even imply that there may have been much more to the original notion of a carol than just singing. But what exactly, lies somewhere in the distant past.