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History of your favourite Christmas carols

Carol Singers
Image: 1000 Words /

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.