Arts Blog

The Stories of Twelve Carols: 2022 Edition

Each year, All Classical Portland’s Program Director John Pitman, selects twelve carols from our extensive Festival of Carols library for a deep dive look into their origins. In 2019, we explored holiday classics like “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and “O Tannenbaum,” while 2020’s post delved into international favorites such as Riu, riu, chiu and Noël nouvelet. In 2021’s list of carols, we traversed centuries with Medieval pieces such as In dulci jubilo and Veni, veni Emmanuel.

This year, we’re expanding our celebration of the season to include a couple of Hanukkah favorites paired with a hearty assortment of liturgical hymns, 20th century standards, and an operatic favorite.

Be sure to tune in to our Festival of Carols on All Classical Portland from December 22-25, and check out the rest of our holiday programming! Plus, read about more favorites from the Festival of Carols in previous years’ editions of The Stories of Twelve Carols: 2021 Stories, 2020 Stories, 2019 Stories.


Originating from an anonymous 14th-century source, Gaudete! (Rejoice!) was discovered in a 16th-century Finnish songbook called Piae Cantiones. Comprising Medieval songs from both Scandinavia and around Europe, Piae Cantiones is home to several beloved Christmas carols today, including In dulci jubilo and Good King Wenceslas. Gaudete! is among the most frequently performed songs from Piae Cantiones, whose joyful text celebrates the birth of Jesus and the symbolic arrival of God in human form on Earth.

Fun fact – the carol had a substantial surge in popularity following a recording in the 1970s performed by the folk-rock band, Steeleye Span.

Hannerot Hallalu

The text of Hannerot Hallalu (“We Light these Lights”) emphasizes the purpose of the lights in recalling God’s miracles during the eight days of Hanukkah. In the ceremony for the occasion, these words would be sung immediately after the lights are ignited on the Menorah. The composer of this arrangement, Belgian-born composer Hugo Adler (1894-1955), emigrated to the United States amid the rise of Nazism in the late 1930s, where he continued his work as a cantor and composer of Jewish liturgical music. His choral setting of Hannerot Hallalu is a blend of beautiful counterpoint set against homophonic moments, making the text of the piece pleasantly transparent for the listener.

O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël)

Despite the immense popularity of O Holy Night today, the tune’s French composer, Adolphe Adam (1803-1856), is perhaps most famous for his tragic ballet, Giselle. In 1847, Adam wrote O Holy Night using a Christmas poem by Placide Cappeau (1808-1877), which had been penned to commemorate the renovation of the organ at the local church. The carol premiered that same year performed by opera singer Emily Laurey. About a decade later, American minister and transcendentalist John Sullivan Dwight (1813-1893) translated the text into English. O Holy Night has since become a staple of seasonal repertoire and one of the most performed and recorded pieces of music. In France, the song is commonly referred to by the first line of the poem, “Minuit, Chrétiens” (“Mightnight, Christians”).

You can find the original French lyrics here, along with an English translation.

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

Several musicians have been inspired to set the anonymous 18th-century text from New England, Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, to music, including English composer Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987). Written in 1967, Poston’s sensitive choral setting of the poem resembles a folksong and harkens back to choral traditions of the past. The hymn begins with a simple melody sung by solo voice, which is then developed into richer harmonies in subsequent verses. In the poem, the “apple tree” may allude to Song of Solomon 2:3, which is considered to be a metaphor representing Christ.

Caroling, Caroling

American musician Alfred Burt (1920-1954) contributed several Christmas carols to the holiday soundscape in the mid-20th Century, the best-known being Caroling, Caroling. With words by Wihla Hutson (1901-2002), Burt’s 1954 classic became famous after making its way onto Nat King Cole’s holiday album, The Magic of Christmas.

The story of Burt’s collection of carols is a particularly creative one. The composer’s father had a tradition of sending out Christmas cards each year to family and friends containing an original carol. Burt took over the tradition in 1942 and wrote annual carols until his untimely death in 1954. His collection of 15 “card carols” wouldn’t be published until after the composer’s death but subsequently became popular holiday tunes.

You can view the artwork for Burt’s holiday cards here.

Three Kings of Orient

Three Kings of Orient was written by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891), an American clergyman and hymnodist known for clarity and simplicity in his music. The classic carol was part of a collection by Hopkins called Carols, Hymns, and Songs published in 1865. Unfortunately, Three Kings of Orient was the only piece from the group to have retained its popularity in the following decades. The composer’s text depicts the three kings from the east described in the Nativity story, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn King.

I Have a Little Dreidel

The beloved Hanukkah song about crafting and playing with a dreidel is certain to make an appearance around the winter holiday. The game is a staple of the Festival of Lights, particularly among children. I Have a Little Dreidel was written by American composer Samuel Goldfarb (1891-1978) in the 1920s with text by Samuel Grossman. Goldfarb, along with his brother, Rabbi Israel Goldfarb, collaborated to promote Jewish music and published several books and pamphlets compiling songs used for various holidays. The popularity of I Have a Little Dreidel really took off in the 1950s with the increased commercialization of Hanukkah as a parallel holiday to Christmas.  

In the Bleak Mid-Winter

You might be surprised to learn that English writer Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) did not intend her poem, “In the bleak mid-winter,” to be set to music. However, given the inherent musicality of her words, composers have long been drawn to set her writing to song. Gustav Holst (1874-1934) composed a choral setting of the poem for the first edition of The English Hymnal in 1906. The combination of Rossetti’s poetic text and Holst’s ethereal music is highly evocative of the season in the Northern Hemisphere. Though Bethlehem likely would not have been covered in snow at the time of Jesus’s birth, snow has long been associated with the event as a symbol of purity.

Shepherd’s Pipe Carol

Shepherd’s Pipe Carol is a contemporary Christmas carol written by English composer and choral director John Rutter (b. 1945). As a composer, Rutter has established himself as a prominent figure in choral music and is best known for his sacred vocal pieces, particularly his Christmas carols. The composer’s oeuvre of carols consists of a mix of arrangements and original works, the latter of which is exemplified in Shepherd’s Pipe Carol. Written in the 1960s, the carol depicts the piping of a shepherd boy on his way to visit Baby Jesus. Rutter suggests that his inspiration for the piece may have come from his experience singing in Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors as a boy, noting: “I think the piping heard as Amahl heads for Bethlehem with the Wise Men may have stuck in my mind.”

A La Nanita Nana

The traditional Spanish Christmas carol (or villancico), A La Nanita Nana, is a gentle lullaby with a striking melody sung for Baby Jesus. While “villancio” is most often associated with Christmas carols today, the term historically had a much broader meaning dating from the Renaissance. Early villancicos were sung with or without accompaniment and varied in vocal texture with both solo and choral settings. A La Nanita Nana offers a tender example of the genre’s evolution towards Christmas subject matter. You can follow along with an English translation of the Spanish lullaby here.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

If you asked a group of people to sing this popular Christmas carol, you might unknowingly conjure quite the cacophony. This is because there are two commonly sung versions of this Christmas hymn – one tune with American origins and the other with British ones. In this post, we’re going to discuss the American version written by Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900). Willis’s original tune was conceived as an organ study, which was then arranged into the choral setting we know today by Uzziah Christopher Burnap (1834-1900).

The text for the carol was written by American Unitarian minister and author Edmund Sears (1810-1876). Interestingly, the poem doesn’t mention the Nativity but instead focuses on the message from the angels, “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men.” It has been suggested that the poem was inspired by the contemporary social tensions leading up to the American Civil War.

Once, in Royal David’s City

The poem, Once, in Royal David’s City, was one of many from an 1848 collection called Hymns for Little Children written by Anglo-Irish poet Cecil Francis Alexander (1823-1895). Alexander is remembered today for her hymnal contributions, such as All things bright and beautiful and There is a green hill far away. English composer and organist Henry John Gauntlett (1806-1876) was also a prolific hymn writer who, after discovering Alexander’s collection of poems, took an existing tune of his called “Irby” and set Alexander’s Christmas poem to music. Once, in royal David’s city tells the story of the Nativity and traditionally opens the Christmas Eve festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.

Keep the Celebration Going

You can find all of the carols discussed in this post on our Spotify playlist, The Stories of Twelve Carols: 2022.

If you’d like to continue learning about many of these festive tunes, we recommend checking out The New Oxford Book of Carols edited by Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott or The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump.

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