A Treasury of Christmas Carols


Preface to the History

The day after Thanksgiving – and well before that in the mall 1 – you’ll begin hearing Christmas carols. According to Marshall Brain who contributed to the How Stuff Works  article on How Christmas Works,

"…there is a set of songs that are played continuously during the Christmas season. Here’s a pretty complete list:

  • Away In A Manger

  • Carol of the Bells

  • Deck the Halls

  • God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

  • Jingle Bells

  • Joy to the World

  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

  • Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

  • I’ll Be Home For Christmas

  • It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

  • Little Drummer Boy

  • Come, All Ye Faithful

  • Holy Night

  • Little Town of Bethlehem

  • O Tannenbaum

  • Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer

  • Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town

  • Silent Night

  • Silver Bells

  • The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)

  • The First Noel

  • The Twelve Days of Christmas

  • We Wish You A Merry Christmas

  • What Child Is This?

  • White Christmas

  • Winter Wonderland

"Since this list is so short [27 carols] you tend to hear each song 700 times over the course of the few weeks leading up to Christmas" 2

Marshall was not far off the mark. Before Christmas 2000, I took a look at the 54 albums, tapes and CDs of Christmas music I owned at that time. All total, there were over 600 carols; but when you eliminate all the duplicates, there were about 175 – most of which you’ll never hear. What you are most likely to hear are the 25 carols represented by ASCAP’s Holiday CD released in 1999 which featured what ASCAP termed the "top Christmas carols of the century"  – plus another dozen or so "traditional" carols.

But there are many more than these three dozen. And just how we came to have carols, and their checkered history, is the subject of this modest history of The Hymns and Carols of Christmas.

Douglas D. Anderson, Editor

A History of the Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Borne on the frosty air

The Christmas song of praise

Now bids all discord cease

And joy reign everywhere.

-- Anonymous

The word "carol" comes from the Middle English carole, which was a kind of round dance with singing, from Old French carole, probably from Late Latin choraula, choral song, from Latin choraulês, accompanist, from Greek khoraulês : khoros, choral dance. A modern definition is a popular, joyful song, especially celebrating Christmas (although in prior centuries, carols were a more generic description of popular, seasonal songs, including New Year, Easter, Spring, Summer, Harvest, etc.). 2a

Carols evolved in England during the Medieval period; the earliest known carols date from the 15th century Mystery Plays2b (Coventry Carol and Joseph Lieber, Joseph Mein). Carols are in the vernacular of the people (as opposed to Church Latin) and are also less religious. They were derived from traditional drinking, feasting, or folk songs, straying from the strictly religious themes found in Church music. This definition also points out a major dividing line within the subject of Christian music: the Church hymn vs. the Folk carol. There can also many subcategories of carols. 3 By the 14th century these traditional carols, often accompanied with dancing, were firmly entrenched as part of the festivities surrounding Christmas.

The connection of carols with the church is evident in Latin segments of text ("Make we joy now in this feast, In quo Christus natus est"); 4 carols also had connections with courtly ceremony ("Boar's Head Carol"), and with convivial occasions ("Wassail, Wassail, all over the town"). "O come, all ye faithful" and "Angels we have heard on high" are typical of carols used in religious services. The carol was tied more strictly to the Christmas season in the 19th century, and Christmas songs from other countries also began to be included in the category of carols.


1. The earliest I ever saw Christmas decorations in a store not devoted to Christmas was September 13th. Return

2. How Stuff Works,  Return

2a. Concerning the word "carol", William Henry Husk, in Songs of the Nativity, gave the following information in his introduction to A Virgin Most Pure:

The first of the versions commencing "A Virgin unspotted," was printed by the Rev. Arthur Bedford (the author of several curious works on music and the stage) about the year 1734. Mr. Bedford, in the title of the carol, has given us a singular etymological derivation of the word carol from Carolus; viz. "A Christmas carol, so called because such were in use in K. Charles I. Reign."! The reader of the present volume will not, it is feared, entertain a very high opinion of Mr. Bedford's antiquarian learning, at least on the subject of Christmas carols.


2b. See, generally, Corpus Christi Day and the Performance of Mysteries, from William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827 (Volume 1, June 2). Return

3. William Studwell in The Christmas Carol Reader makes two major distinctions – "Christmas as a Holy Day" and "Christmas as a Holiday" – and 19 subdivisions between these two. See Appendix A. Return

4. Such carols or hymns are termed "Macaronic." They enjoyed particular vogue in the 15th century. See David L. Jeffrey, University of Ottawa, "Early English Carols and the Macaronic Hymn," printed at Research Web Site of the Faculty of Arts, University of Western Ontario. Also see William Sandys, Specimens of Macaronic Poetry (Richard Beckley, 1831), and William Otto Wehrle, The Macaronic Hymn Tradition in Medieval English Literature (The Catholic University of America, 1933).  Return

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Douglas D. Anderson

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