Everyone has a favorite Christmas carol. It may be a song from your favorite Christmas movie. Maybe it is one you sang in church every year growing up. Or it might be a carol that reminds you of Christmas Eve at your grandmother’s house. Christmas caroling has taken place for thousands of years. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without carols. Whether you are a fan of Christmas carols being played as soon as the calendar turns to November 1st, or if you prefer to wait for your Christmas caroling until after Thanksgiving has passed, here are some fun things about Christmas caroling to put you in the holiday spirit.
The History of Christmas Caroling
The idea of Christmas caroling originated from songs that were sung during pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, usually taking place around December 21st or 22nd. Early Christians took over the pagan winter solstice celebrations for Christmas and gave people Christian songs to sing instead of the pagan songs. These early carols were not exactly the Christmas carols we sing today though. They were all written and sung in Latin. One of the earliest versions of a Christmas carol is a song called “Hymn of the Angels” or “Gloria in Excelsis.”
Things started to change when St. Francis of Assisi started to put on nativity plays in Italy around 1223. Typically, the story would be told through songs. Sometimes the carols were in Latin, but normally they were in a language native to the people watching the play. These new “carols” spread across Europe.
Christmas caroling became more widespread when the first English carols emerged in the early 1400s. John Audelay, an English priest and poet, was a significant contributor to the history of Christmas carols when he composed at least 25 hymns in English that he and a group of carolers sang from house to house. Most of Audelay’s songs were about repenting rather than holiday cheer.
For the next 200 years, Christmas caroling remained a tradition in and around England until Puritans took over and outlawed public Christmas caroling for about 20 years in the early 1600s (They actually banned the celebration of Christmas altogether!). The tradition of Christmas caroling survived this time because people continued to sing them, just in secret. As soon as the Puritans were out of power, everyone came out of hiding to celebrate Christmas with feasts and singing Christmas carols again.
It was not until the 1800s though that Christmas caroling in public really became popular. Two men – William Sandys and Davis Gilbert – began collecting old seasonal music from villages all over England. Gilbert published two small collections of carols while Sandys published a collection of over 100 Christmas carols from different times and places. A few of the old Christmas carols that are still sung today, and that you have likely heard and know, include “We Saw Three Ships” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Thanks to Sandys, Christmas caroling became wildly popular. It is probably him that we should thank for having so many festive, happy Christmas carols today.
Popular Christmas Carols
It is hard to rank Christmas carols. Everyone has a favorite. Here are a few tidbits about some of the most popular Christmas carols.
- White Christmas – Sung by Bing Crosby, “White Christmas” is one of the most popular Christmas carols ever written. The song was actually written by Irving Berlin for the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn” starring Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds. It won the Academy Award for Best Song of the Year that year. It was not until 1954 that it became the title song in the movie “White Christmas.” Bing Crosby’s recording of the song has been named the best-selling single of all time by Guinness World Records, as it has sold more than 100 million copies around the world. “White Christmas” is also the most recorded Christmas song of all time with over 500 different recordings to date.
- The Christmas Song – Many people refer to this song as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” This Christmas carol was made famous with Nat King Cole’s 1946 recording. It is so popular, that it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974. A fun fact about the Christmas song is that it was written by writing partners Bob Wells and Mel Tormé in about 45 minutes on a swelteringly hot day in the summer of 1945. Wells started writing it to try to take his mind off the heat!
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for the 1944 movie “Meet Me In St. Louis.” In 2004, this Christmas carol was ranked number 76 on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Songs list. It was also on the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers’ most performed songs during the Christmas season, ranking number three.
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – Based on the children’s story of the same name from 1939, songwriter Johnny Marks wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1949. Gene Autry (also known for his version of “Frosty the Snowman”) was the first to record this Christmas carol. The song went all the way to number one on U.S. music charts. The song also spawned that 1964 iconic stop motion TV special from Rankin/Bass Productions – what’s Christmas without watching Rudolph save Christmas Eve?
- Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt first sang this cheeky Christmas carol in 1953 and it may be one of her most well-known songs. She was known to have said that “Santa Baby” was one of her favorite songs to record. With over 500,000 copies sold, making it a certified Gold Record, “Santa Baby” is officially one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time.
- Feliz Navidad – Although Puerto Rican singer José Feliciano recorded “Feliz Navidad” in 1970, this Christmas carol did not make it onto the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 until 1998! Today it is one of the most popular Christmas songs on the radio, making it into the top 10 of Billboard’s Holiday 100 every year. The singer was initially going to record the song with only Spanish lyrics but decided to include English lyrics as well to make sure American radio stations would play the song.
- All I Want for Christmas Is You – It is the song you hear everywhere during the holiday season. Released in 1994, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” has been the go-to Christmas song for the last 25 years. It became an instant hit spending 30 weeks on the U.S. Holiday 100 and peaking at number one. The song is so popular that it reached number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2015, 21 years after it was first released.
Whether you play “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on repeat as soon as you finish trick-or-treating or you prefer to wait until after the Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing to add Christmas Radio to your Pandora stations, Christmas carols put everyone in the holiday spirit. They remind us of our childhood and of our favorite Christmas movies. This year on the shortest day of the year, sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to your heart’s content and remember that we have the winter solstice to thank for all these Christmas carols.
WANT TO READ MORE?
Thoroughly in the Christmas spirit? Check out this article on 7 Christmas Traditions Dating to the Middle Ages.
Sources: The History of Christmas Carols, Historic Mysteries: The History of Christmas Carols, 40 Festive Christmas Songs to Get You in the Holiday Spirit, The 20 Best-Ever Christmas Songs – Ranked, The Story Behind ‘The Christmas Song’, ‘Feliz Navidad’: How Jose Feliciano Won America’s Heart
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