A Brief History of Christmas Carols
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During the Christmas season, carols are sung in churches, elementary schools, and on every street corner. Carols are everywhere, but where did they come from? Here’s the history of some of the most popular songs of the season.
“Silent Night” was first written on Christmas Eve of 1818. Legend has it that a group of traveling actors was scheduled to perform in a church in Oberndorf, Germany. The church organ was not working and would not be repaired before Christmas, so the group performed alternatively in a private home. Walking home from the performance, Father Josef Maur stopped and saw the beauty of the falling snow and remembered a poem he had written a few years earlier. Thinking that it would be a perfect fit for the Christmas Mass, he ran to his friend Franz Gruber and asked him to come up with a tune and play it on his guitar.
The first official performance of “Stille Nacht, heilige nacht” was by candlelight at the Mass in the small German town. Today, “Silent Night” has been translated into over 100 languages, and is considered a work of cultural heritage.
“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” comes from the English tradition of going door to door singing songs in exchange for food and drink. The origins of the song are unclear, but it has been a part of English folk tradition for many years, some sources even place it in the 1500’s. Traditionally, carolers would go to their neighbor’s doors and greet them with the song. As the song progresses, the demand for figgy pudding is portrayed in a cheeky manner, as the group says they won’t leave until they get some food. Today, it is still one of the most popular songs for carolers to sing!
“O Come O Come Emmanuel” was originally written in Latin and played as part of the Advent season in the Catholic church. The phrase “Veni, Veni Emmanuel” originated as part of the O Antiphons chanted by monks in the 8th century during the last few days of the Magnificat leading up to Christmas. In later years, the phrase was developed into an entire piece by an unknown author and first officially published in 1878. The tune called “Veni Emmanuel” was developed from a 15th century French burial processional. The final English translation was developed by 1940 and includes seven verses.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written and published by 1780 in a book of songs for children. Originally adapted from French and English Carols, the days sung about represent the twelve days after Christmas, in which people would receive gifts. According to some traditions, the twelve days are included as a part of Catechism to teach children about Christian principles. There are also some different variations of the days in other countries, like in Northern English towns, where they sing “The Ten Days of Christmas,” or the Faroe Islands that switch out the traditional gifts for gifts such as one feather, eight ponies, or fourteen rounds of cheese.
With a glimpse of some of the stories behind the songs, enjoy the season, and sing joyfully this Christmas!