The ten best Christmas carols – and their interesting literary origins and meaning
‘Tis the season to the jolly, so let’s all sing a Christmas carol and enjoy a mince pie. No? Okay, how about you sit back with your mince pie and a glass of sherry, and we regale you with a few interesting facts about the literary origins and histories of some of the best-loved Christmas carols. We’ve included a link to a recording of each carol, should you wish to hear them – simply click on the carol’s title to hear the merry notes ring out. What’s your favourite Christmas carol? If you had to choose one, which Christmas carol would be crowned the greatest of all?
Anonymous, ‘Coventry Carol‘. ‘Herod the king, in his raging / Charged he hath this day / His men of might, in his own sight / All young children to slay …’ Dating from the early sixteenth century (its words were written down by one writer in 1534) and originally part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, this carol was a favourite of local Coventry boy Philip Larkin, who chose it as one of his Desert Island Discs. The origins of the carol are dark: in the play, the carol is sung by the mothers of the slain innocents, the infant children whom Herod ordered to be killed. It’s not the most famous Christmas carol, but its stirring quality, and its vintage (nearly half a millennium old), make it worth hearing.
Sabine Baring-Gould, ‘Gabriel’s Message‘. ‘The angel Gabriel from heaven came / His wings as drifted snow / His eyes as flame / “All hail,” said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary / Most highly favoured lady,” Gloria, Gloria’. This is a Basque Christmas carol dating from the middle ages, but its English words were first composed by Sabine Baring-Gould (better known for writing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers‘) in the early twentieth century. Taking the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary as its theme, it’s another stirring Christmas song of fine vintage that provides an alternative to the more jaunty and upbeat carols also featured on this list.
Mrs Cecil Alexander, ‘Once in Royal David’s City‘. ‘Once in royal David’s city / Stood a lowly cattle shed, / Where a mother laid her Baby / In a manger for His bed: / Mary was that mother mild, / Jesus Christ her little Child …’ The lyrics to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ were written by the same woman, Mrs Cecil Alexander, who wrote the words to the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Alexander was born Miss Cecil Humphreys in Dublin in 1818, and married the Anglican clergyman William Alexander in 1850, two years after the publication of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ in 1848 in a hymnbook named Hymns for Little Children. It was set to music by composer Henry John Gauntlett when he read the poem, and liked it, a year later. The carol has traditionally been the first carol sung in the annual ‘Carol’s from King’s’ service at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. Indeed, for the last 95 years it has opened the service. Like many traditional Christmas carols, the hymn takes the nativity (the ‘lowly cattle-shed’ where the infant Jesus was born) as its subject.
Christina Rossetti, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘. ‘In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, / Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; / Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, / In the bleak midwinter, long ago.’ Victorian poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) composed the words to this (which can be read here), one of the finest Christmas carols in English: it was originally written as a poem titled ‘A Christmas Carol’, in 1872 – 29 years after Dickens’s famous book of that name had been published. Rossetti died before it was even published, in 1904. Two years later it was first set to music: the most famous settings are by composers Harold Darke and Gustav Holst. We include ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ in our pick of the ten best Christmas poems.
Anonymous, ‘Away in a Manger‘. When the lyrics to this classic traditional Christmas carol were first published in 1884 in the Boston periodical The Myrtle, the writers attributed the original verses of the song to Protestant reformer Martin Luther, born in 1483. This is almost certainly not true – the words are found nowhere in Luther’s surviving writings – and the lyrics were most probably a product of the nineteenth century. Further verses were, at any rate, later added until the carol had taken the form it now has, by the early twentieth century. Another nativity scene focusing on the stable where Jesus Christ was born, this is among the most famous Christmas carols.
Nahum Tate, ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks‘. ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night, / All seated on the ground, / The angel of the Lord came down, / And glory shone around.’ Nahum Tate was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1692 until 1715; he is also remembered for giving Shakespeare‘s tragedy King Lear a happy ending. But his most enduring legacy was in the world of Christmas carols, as he penned the words to ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’, published in the late seventeenth century. The poem/carol focuses on the visit from the Angel of the Lord to announce the birth of Christ.
Anonymous, ‘The Holly and the Ivy‘. Nobody knows who penned the words to this Christmas song; it is usually given the status ‘traditional’. The words were certainly in print by the early nineteenth century. However, it is thought that it may have been composed as early as 1710, making it among the oldest, but also one of the best, classic Christmas carols. The song focuses on the traditional Christmas plants used to decorate the house at Christmas time. As such – and because holly was sacred to druids – the poem has more pagan connotations than many of the other carols on this list.
George Ratcliffe Woodward, ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High‘. Although the tune to this traditional Christmas carol dates back to the sixteenth century, the words are of altogether more recent origin: Woodward (1848-1934) published the lyrics in 1924. At least, the English lyrics date from 1924; the original words were in Latin, pointing to the carol’s possible pre-Reformation roots (i.e. early rather than later sixteenth century). The Latin origins survive as a relic in the line, ‘Gloria, hosanna in excelsis‘. One of the most rousing – and one of the best – Christmas carols in English.
Charles Wesley, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing‘. This carol was the work of Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the founder of the Methodist religious movement. It was published in 1739 in Hymns and Sacred Poems. When it firstg appeared it had the somewhat different opening line, ‘Hark how all the Welkin rings.’ Among the various composers who have set Wesley’s lyrics to music are Felix Mendelssohn. This is another carol to take the birth of Jesus as its theme.
Anonymous, ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas‘. Little is known about the origins of this carol, usually taken to be a traditional wassail (drinking) song – certainly, it emphasises the ‘eat, drink and be merry’ side to the festive season. However, we do know that the song originated in the West Country, and probably arose out of the tradition of Christmas carol-singers being given tasty treats by rich neighbours on Christmas Eve. After the singers had regaled their wealthy patrons with a few songs, they would be rewarded with ‘figgy pudding’ – similar to our modern Christmas puddings.
What classic carol have we missed off this list? What are your favourite Christmas carols? If you’d like to discover more facts about the history behind classic Christmas carols, we recommend Mark Lawson-Jones’s informative book, Why was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: The History Of Christmas Carols.
Image (top): The Adoration of the Shepherds, c. 1650, Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): ‘Song of the Angels at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour’, better known as ‘While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks’, from A New version of the Psalms of David : fitted to the tunes used in churches, Wikimedia Commons.