Popular Christmas Carols and Their Origins

“The spirit of Christmas exists in harmonious carols like those sung by angels on the day of Christ’s birth.”
― Richelle E. Goodrich, Slaying Dragons: Quotes, Poetry, & a Few Short Stories for Every Day of the Year

Christmas does not seem Christmassy enough without carols. Right from the beginning of December, we find people rejoicing and enlivening the spirit of Christmas by singing carols. So, what are carols exactly? When did people start singing them?

Well, as per the dictionary, carols are traditional songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Now, you may ask when did this tradition start? Many believe that the first ever Christmas Carol was the Angel’s Hymn. It came out way back in 129 AD. Since then, more and more songs about the birth of Christ started emerging. Arguably, the oldest printed carol came out in 1521. It is the Boar’s Head Carol. It must be noted that it was in 1928 that the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge’s Christmas Eve carol service, was broadcast over the public airwaves for the first time.

Nevertheless, a large number of carols, with their tasteful melodies, are a product of the 19th century.

Let us have a look at some of the most popular Christmas Carols and the stories of their inception.

Jingle Bells

Jingle Bells is one of those melodies that is familiar to all, irrespective of age, nationality, and religion. For many of us, Jingle Bells is synonymous with Christmas. However, you would be surprised to know that the tune was not composed for Christmas at all. James Lord Pierpont came up with the song in the 1850s with the intention to celebrate Thanksgiving. Originally named The One Horse Open Sleigh, the popular carol was first publicly played in Pierpont’s local Unitarian Church in Savannah, Georgia. The song came to be known as Jingle Bells in 1857 when its notes and lyrics were first published. Fun fact, Jingle Bells, was the first song to be ever broadcast in space. On December 16, 1965, the crew of Gemini 6 played a rudimentary rendition of the song with bells and a harmonica when they reportedly saw Santa Claus.

Silent Night

Silent Night is one of the most renowned Christmas carols in the world. The words of this soothing melody were penned by a young Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr in 1816. It was shortly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 that Mohr had gone out for a walk. During his walk, he came to the realization that the town of Matispfarr was finally at peace. Two years later, when Mohr was stationed back in St. Nicholas’ Church, he and his friend, Franz Gruber, a choir director, collaborated to create the melody of the carol. Silent Night was first performed in St. Nicholas’ Church on the Christmas Eve of 1818. 40 years later, an Episcopal priest named John Freeman Young translated Silent Night into English. Since then, the carol has been a staple for Christmas.

Hark! The Heralds Angels Sing

Hark! The Heralds Angels Sing was first conceived as a poem penned by Charles Wesley in 1739. He was the brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley’s poem opened with the lines “Hark how all the welkin rings.” George Whitefield, a contemporary of Wesley, changed the line to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” After its inception, Hark! The Heralds Angels Sing was sung to various tunes. Finally, German composer, Felix Mendelssohn’s tempo was made the norm after William H. Cummings paired Wesley’s poem with his Fetgesang almost a century later.

Joy to the World

In 1719, Isaac Watts, an English poet and United Methodist clergyman, penned Joy to the World as a poem. Later, George Frederic Handel, one of the most renowned German composers, and Lowell Mason revised the poem and gave it its present form. Fun fact, Joy to the World was not penned as a Christmas carol. Yet, it is the most published Christmas Carol in North America.

O Christmas Tree

O Christmas Tree originates from Germany. Way back in the 16th century, Melchior Franck came up with a folk song celebrating the tradition of bringing a fir tree home to decorate it and put it beside the nativity scene. Also known as O Tannebaum, the Carol was revised by Joachim August Zarnack in 1819 and Ernst Anschütz in 1824. Since the 19th century, the melody has steadily grown in popularity. It has been made a part of a plethora of Christmas albums including Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson, Ernest Saves Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillip Brooks came up with O Little Town of Bethlehem in 1865. Brooks was a well-educated Episcopalian preacher who taught at Yale University. He was publicly against slavery during the Civil War. In 1865, when he was returning from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on horseback, he was struck by an epiphany. His journey, after attending the Church of the Nativity’s Christmas Eve celebrations, made him experience a life-changing realization. Inspired by it, he penned O Little Town of Bethlehem, a carol that narrates the story of Christ’s birth. The song was first performed publicly on December 27 1868 by the children’s choir of his church.

Mary Did You Know

Mary Did You Know is a pretty recent composition. It was penned by Mark Lowry in 1984. Lowry’s friend, Buddy Green, wrote the tune to the carol. It was first recorded by Michael English. Though it’s pretty new, Mary Did You Know is quite popular among the masses.


Carols have now become an integral part of Christmas. They bring about festive cheer and infuse in us the spirit of Christmas. For many of us, Christmas is unimaginable without carols. I still remember my school days when we all happily started singing carols during the morning chapel right from the beginning of December. For us, that marked the beginning of the holiday season. I am sure you all have your favorite carols and your own special memories attached to them. Do comment and let me know about them.

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One thought on “Popular Christmas Carols and Their Origins

  1. I never thought such a jolly song as “Jingle Bells” had a religious origin. And I do love Handel’s
    music, but I didn’t know he was the composer of “Joy to the World.” I wonder what the original purpose of the song was. What an educational post!

    Liked by 1 person

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