When it comes to traditional Christmas carols, separating history from legend can be as tricky as detangling holly and ivy. Looking forward to our Festival of Carols, which will run from 7PM on December 21 through December 25, we’d like to share some of the true stories behind our favorite carols.
The First Nowell
It is thought “The First Nowell” originated as a Cornish gallery carol. During the 18th century, many small country churches in England lacked an organ, so amateur choirs formed to lead singing from the gallery, or balcony. These choirs were often accompanied by small bands, including a bass instrument, and sometimes a number of strings and winds.
“The First Nowell” was published in in 1823 in William Sandys’s collection of carols from the West Country, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. This carol frequently is sung in a beautiful harmonization by the eminent Victorian English church musician, composer, and musicologist, Sir John Stainer (1840-1901).
Despite the fact that the original text is in Latin, this one is probably not an ancient chant, as it hasn’t yet been traced earlier than the 17th or 18th centuries. The carol first appeared in print thanks to John Francis Wade (1711/2-1786), an English music teacher who created beautiful calligraphic copies of chant for the use of foreign embassy chapels in London. “Adeste fidelis” was included in Wade’s Cantus Diversi pro Dominicis et Festis per annum (1751), and it is unknown whether Wade authored the carol or simply copied it. “Adeste fidelis” also appeared in An Essay of the Church Plain Chant (London, 1782), an anonymous publication that has been attributed to Wade.
The familiar English translation “O Come, All Ye Faithful” was made by priest and author Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880), who served as Canon of the Roman Catholic diocese of Westminster.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” reached its holiday prominence by a circuitous route. The tune, which originally had nothing to do with Christmas, was composed in 1840 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), as the second movement of his Festgesang or Gutenberg Cantata. Mendelssohn composed this work for the Leipzig Gutenberg Festival, celebrating the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press. Mendelssohn’s cantata, for male chorus and brass ensemble, was sung at the unveiling of Leipzig’s new statue of Johannes Gutenberg.
I suspect you can hear the music in your head as you read the tune’s original refrain:
“Gutenberg, du wackrer Mann, du stehst glorreich auf dem Plan!” “Gutenberg, you valiant man, you stand glorious on the square!”
Mendelssohn hoped to publish his Gutenberg tune with English words, but he couldn’t find a text to suit him. In a 1843 letter to Edward Buxton, one of his English music publishers, he explained: “If the right [words] are hit at, I am sure that the piece will be liked very much by singers and hearers, but it will never do to sacred words…”
In 1847, Mendelssohn directed the London premiere of his oratorio Elijah, and one of the alto choirboys was one William Cummings. Little did Mendelssohn know that in the 1850s, Cummings would be the one to attach his Gutenberg tune to a decidedly sacred poem entitled “Hymn for Christmas-Day,” from Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739) by Methodist writer Charles Wesley (17071788), the first line of which is, of course, “Hark! The herald angels sing…”
Joy to the World
The text of this carol is actually an adaptation of Psalm 98, from hymnwriter Isaac Watts’s Psalms of David, Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719). Watts called the poem “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom,” probably not thinking particularly of Christmas or caroling.
In 1836, American composer and music educator Lowell Mason published the text with a tune entitled Antioch in The Modern Psalmist. Mason attributed the tune to Handel, but nobody’s sure what Handel melody Mason had in mind. It is speculated that the tune was inspired by the choruses “Glory to God in the Highest,” or “Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates,” from Handel’s Messiah, on the tenuous ground that the melodies of both begin with the same four notes as Antioch. It’s also possible that Mason adapted it from a preexisting anonymous hymn tune, as scholars have found earlier tunes published in America which resemble Antioch.
All things considered, Handel might be as confused as anyone about the attribution of this tune.
Neither the text nor the music of this song began life associated with Christmas. Tannenbaum actually means “fir tree,” not “Christmas tree,” and songs honoring the evergreen as a symbol of constancy have been popping up in German culture for centuries, including a Westfalian folk song called “O Dannebom.”
In 1820, preacher and folk music collector August Zarnack published a love song entitled “O Tannenbaum” in which the evergreen fir tree is contrasted with a faithless lover. His poem was set to the German folk tune we associate with the carol, which had first been published in 1799 and which has also appeared attached to a German college student song in Latin, “Lauriger Horatius” (“Laurel-Crowned Horace”) and a German folk song, “Es lebe hoch der Zimmermannsgeselle” (“Long Live the Carpenter’s Assistant”).
About this time, the custom of evergreen trees as indoor Christmas decorations was gaining steam in Germany. In 1824, a schoolmaster and organist named Ernst Anschütz borrowed the first verse of Zarback’s arboreal love song and added two festive verses of his own, which transplanted the song firmly into the Christmas canon.
The tune of “O Tannenbaum” continues to serve many purposes to this day, as the tune of several American state songs and college Alma Maters.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
Boston minister Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) spent the Christmas of 1866 in Bethlehem. Inspired by his pilgrimage, he wrote the poem “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in 1868 for the Sunday school at his parish, Trinity Church in Boston.
Brooks asked his church organist and Sunday school superintendent Lewis H. Redner to compose a tune for his carol. Redner (1831-1908), who was an estate agent during the week, reportedly finished his tune the night before it was sung in church. Known as St. Louis, Redner’s tune is still the most popular setting of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in America.
In England, however, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is better known to the tune called Forest Green. Originally a folk song called “The Ploughboy’s Dream,” Ralph Vaughan Williams arranged the tune as a setting of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for The English Hymnal in 1906.
Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!
The author of this beloved German carol was Joseph Mohr (1792-1848), a priest who trained as a choirboy at Salzburg Cathedral. In 1818, Mohr was serving at a little parish in the town of Obendorf, in modern day Bavaria. He had written a poem entitled “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!,” and looking for a composer to set it to music, he approached Franz Gruber (1787-1863), organist and schoolmaster at the nearby town of Arnsdorf. Gruber and Mohr introduced their carol on Christmas evening Mass at Mohr’s parish of St. Nicholas: charmingly, Mohr sang and Gruber accompanied on guitar.
Various legends have sprung up around this carol, specifically regarding the guitar accompaniment. Mostly the legends suggest that the church organ was out of order and couldn’t be repaired in time for Christmas. Some versions blame a flood, some have a mouse chewing a hole in the leather of the organ bellows. The truth is, songs accompanied by guitar weren’t that unusual in 1818 Germany, so there’s no need to attribute this guitar accompaniment to a rodent infestation.
Angels from the Realms of Glory
This text was written in 1816 by Scottish writer James Montgomery (1771-1854), a newspaper editor who was imprisoned multiple times for the radical views expressed in his publications. “Angels from the Realms of Glory” is one of 400-odd hymns Montgomery penned.
This carol is popular with several tunes, including Regent Square by English law-student-turnedorganist and Henry Smart (1813-1879).
It is also sung to the French carol tune known as Iris, so christened after James Montgomery’s newspaper, The Sheffield Iris. This particular tune is a Christmas twofer, as it also appears under the name Gloria, particularly when accompanying the text of our next famous carol about angels:
Angels We Have Heard on High
This is a traditional noël, or French carol, which may have originated in the district of Lorraine. In French it’s called “Les anges dans nos campagnes,” and its lyrics are a dialogue between the shepherds and women of Bethlehem, who tell the Christmas story and quote the Latin text of the angels’ biblical nativity song, Gloria in excelsis Deo.
This carol became popular in France and Quebec in the mid-19th century, and it reached English speakers in a 1860 translation by James Chadwick in Holy Family Hymns.
Away in a Manger
This carol appears to be American in origin, though it first attained popularity mis-attributed to Martin Luther. The text appeared in the March 2, 1882 edition of The Christian Cynosure, entitled “Luther’s Cradle Song.” It was accompanied by a wholly inaccurate byline: “The following hymn, composed by Martin Luther for his children, is still sung by many of the German mothers to their little ones.”
Martin Luther (1483-1546) did, in fact, compose Christmas hymns, including “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her” (“From Heaven High I Come To You,”) which he published in 1535 as “A children’s song on the Nativity of Christ.” However, this Luther hymn bears no textual or musical resemblance to “Away in a Manger.”
Like “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” “Away in a Manger” is sung to a variety of tunes. In America it’s best known with the tune Mueller, composed by songwriter and organist James R. Murray (1841/2-1905). In England, “Away in a Manger” is more frequently sung to Cradle Song, composed in 1895 by Philadelphia carpenter-turned-church-music director William J. Kirkpatrick (1838-1921).
We Wish You a Merry Christmas
This one is a folk carol from the West Country of England. It was sung by carolers, or mummers, as they were called in the 19th century: children who sang carols from door to door, expecting treats in return, such as Christmas pudding (which often contained sweet ingredients like figs).
Various versions exist, including this one, quoted as a traditional carolers’ refrain in an 1836 newspaper piece:
We wish you a merry Christmas
And a happy new year,
A pocket full of money
And a cellar full of beer.
Deck the Hall
“Deck the Hall” is a Welsh New Year carol dating from the 16th century, its Welsh title being “Nos Galan.” The song gained popularity after it was published in John Thomas’s Welsh Melodies (1862), with a version of the traditional text rendered by Welsh poet Talhaiarn (1810-1869), plus English lyrics by Thomas Oliphant (1799-1873). However, the English lyrics weren’t an attempt to translate the Welsh, but rather a new poem altogether. What the two texts have in common is a goodly quantity of beverages and fa la las.
Here’s a literal translation of a Welsh version, from A Treatise on the Language, Poetry and Music of the Highland Clans, by Donald Campbell, published in 1862.
The best pleasure on New Year’s Eve,
—Fa, la, &c.
Is house and fire and a pleasant family,
—Fa, la, &c.
A pure heart and brown ale,
—Fa, la, &c.
A gentle song and the voice of the harp,
—Fa, la, &c.
So then, Oliphant’s English version isn’t exactly an “ancient Yuletide carol,” but it does reference plenty of British yuletide traditions. Holly was a sacred plant since the time of the Druids, and after Christianity came to the British Isles, the berries were seen to represent Christ’s blood, and the leaves his crown of thorns. The Yule log burning on the hearth through the twelve days of Christmas is another tradition that may have pagan origins. Yule Log rituals include keeping a bit of its wood all year to protect the home from fires and to use in lighting next year’s log.
For Further Reading
If you’d like to know more about the history (not just the legends) behind Christmas carols, check out The New Oxford Book of Carols, edited by Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, which features music, texts and copious historical notes on more than 200 holiday classics.