by Francis Weiser (1952)

Christmas Hymns and Carols


The word  "Carol" • 

A hymn is essentially solemn; a carol, in modern sense, is familiar, playful, or festive, but always simile. The distinction between hymns and carols is often over-Doked, and "carol" has come to denote all vernacular songs pertaining to Christmas. 1 The word carol comes from the Greek word chorauleii (choros, the dance; aulein, to play the flute), and referred » a dance accompanied by the playing of flutes. Such dancing usually done in ring form, was very popular in ancient times among the Greek and Roman people. The Romans took the custom and its name to Britain.

In medieval England carol meant a ring dance accompanied by singing. The dancers would form a circle and, joining their hands, walk in rhythmic dance step while keeping the form on the circle.2

Gradually the meaning of carol changed, and the word was applied to the song. In an English-Latin vocabulary of 1440 the definition of a carol is given as "song, psalmodium." 3

Ancient Hymns and Carols • 

The first hymns in honor of the Nativity were written in the fifth century, soon after Christmas was fully established as one of the great annual feasts. These hymns, written in Latin, increased in number as time went on. Some of them were incorporated in the Divine Office and are still used at Christmas time in the daily prayers of the breviary, while others are sung by church choirs at liturgical services. Many Latin hymns of 1200 to 1700 were translated into various languages and have since become popular carols.4

The early Latin, hymns of- 400 to 1200 are profound and solemn, and dwell exclusively on the supernatural aspects of Christmas. Theological in text, they do not concern themselves with the human side of the Nativity. A few of the best-known early Latin hymns are:

Jesus refulsit omnium  (Jesus, light of all the nations), by Saint Hilary of Poitiers  (368) Corde natus ex Parentis (Of the Father's love begotten), by Pradentius  (405), a layman, government official of the Roman Empire, and great Christian poet Agnoscat omne saeculum (Let every age and nation know), by Venantius Fortunatus  (602), Bishop of Poitiers.

A song of the ancient Greek Church which in English translation still survives is the hymn "O gladsome light" (Phos hilar on). It is used in many churches at Christmas candlelight services.

Other Latin hymns that were later translated and became popular carols are:

In hoc anni circulo (In the circle of this year)

Dies est laetitiae (O royal day of holy joy)

Flos e radice Jesse (A spotless rose is growing);

this hymn of the sixteenth century was set to

music—its present familiar tune-by Michael

Praetorius (1621), a German priest6

The birthplace of the true Christmas carol was Italy. There, in the thirteenth century, among the early Franciscans, Saint Francis of Assisi was the first to introduce the joyous carol spirit which soon spread all over Europe. He had a particular devotion and affection for the mysteries of the holy childhood of Jesus. His biographer, Thomas of Celano (about 1260), says, "The Child Jesus was forgotten by the hearts of many. But with the grace of God He was resurrected again and recalled to loving memory in those hearts through His servant, the Blessed Francis." 6

Saint Francis wrote a beautiful Christmas hymn in Latin (Psalmus in Natiwtate), but there is no evidence that he composed carols in Italian. His companions and spiritual sons, however, the first Franciscan friars, contributed a large number of lovely Italian Christmas carols. Here is an English translation of one of these thirteenth-century Italian carols.7 The tune has become very familiar as the theme on 'which Handel developed his Pastoral Symphony in the Messiah:

In Bethlehem is born the Holy Child,

On hay and straw in the winter wild;

O, my heart is full of mirth

At Jesus' birth.

From Italy the carol spread quickly to Spain and France, and Enally all over Europe.

In Germany in the fourteenth century a great many popular Christmas carols were written largely under the inspiration of the Dominican mystics John Eckhardt (1327), John Tauler .1361), and Blessed Henry Suso (1366), author of the famous carol In dulci jubilo.

The earliest-known English carol was written at the beginning of the fifteenth century.8 It is a lullaby of great simplicity and tenderness:

I saw a sweet, a seemly sight, A blissful bird, a blossom bright, That mourning made and mirth among: A maiden mother meek and mild In cradle keep a knave [boy] child That softly slept; she sat and sung:

Lullay, lulla, balow,

My bairn, sleep softly now.

Tbese early English carols usually employed both rhyme and alliteration. There followed a great number of English Christmas poems in the next two centuries, most of them very tender and devout, praising the Divine Child and His Virgin Mother.

Modern Hymns and Carols * 

After the Reformation most of the old hymns and carols were no longer sung, and consequently were forgotten in many countries until their revival in the nineteenth century.

Christmas carols in general were discouraged by the Calvinists, who substituted metrical psalms in their place. Carol singing was suppressed altogether by the Puritans. Following the restoration of Christmas in England, however, there were numerous festive songs in praise of the feast, but very few religious carols. One of the few, which has become a favorite among English-speaking nations, is the ballad "While shepherds watched their flocks by night," written by Nahum Tate (1715).9 Its familiar music was taken from the "Christmas melody" of Handel's opera Siroe, and arranged in the present setting by Richard Storrs Willis in 1850.

The Methodist revival in the eighteenth century, though, had inspired a number of modem hymns, first used only in Methodist churches, but gradually welcomed by all English-speaking people. The best-known of these is "Hark, the herald angels sing," written by Charles Wesley.10 The music was adapted from Mendelssohn's Festgesang (written in 1840) by William H. Cummings, organist at Walfham Abbey, England, in 1885.

Another popular English carol of the last century is the song:

"Good King Wenceslaus." This is not a Christmas carol in the strict sense, but, rather, the poetic story of a famous miracle ascribed in medieval legend to Saint Wenceslaus, Martyr, Duke of Bohemia (935). The miracle, according to the poem, occurred "on the day of Stephen" (December 26), and thus became one of the English Christmas carols. The tune was originally a sixteenth-century spring canticle and the words were written by John M. Neale (1866).11

The carol "Joy to the world! The Lord is come" came from the pen of an English poet, Isaac Watts (1748). Lowell Mason (1872) of Medfield, Massachusetts, composed the music from tunes found in Handel's Messiah. This carol first appeared in print in 1839.12 A recent English carol is "The world's desire" by G. K. Chesterton (1936).

The Lutherans in Germany wrote new hymns for their own use. Among these are some of the best modern carols, such as Martin Luther's delightful song Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her (From Heaven above I come to you), which he wrote in 1535.13 Bach composed a harmonization for it in his Christmas oratorio.

Another carol ascribed to Martin Luther, and widely used in America, is the beautiful "Away in a manger." It is usually called' "Luther's Cradle Hymn," though neither the text nor the music was written by him.14 It might very well have been inspired, however, by the second part of the first stanza of Luther's hymn Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar, which starts with the line 'Ein Kindlein zart, das liegt dort in der Krippen" (Away there in the manger a little Infant lies). The familiar English text is of American .origin, very likely written in one of the settlements of German Lutherans in Pennsylvania. The poem appeared in print in Philadelphia in 1885. Since then, forty-one settings have been written for this carol; the most popular ones are the tunes composed by James B.. Murray (who, erroneously, ascribed the authorship of the poem to Luther) in 1887, and by William James Erkpatrick (1921).15

Within the past two centuries a number of excellent carols have been written in Germany, and many have been adopted as popular church hymns. Some have- become favorite songs in other countries. The best-known of these are:

O du frohliche ... (O, thou, joyful Christmas time), a popular carol written by Johann Falk in 1816; the tune was taken from an old Sicilian Madonna hymn in Latin, O Sanctissima16

O Tannenbaum (0 Christmas Tree), an early nineteenth-century carol, familiar in the United States as the tune to which the words of "Maryland, My Maryland" are set17

Ihr Kinderlein, Kommet (O come, all ye children), written by Christoph von Schmid (1854) and sung to a tune composed by Johann A. P. Schulz (1800), has become the favorite children's carol in Germany and is now frequently heard in churches in this country.18

The first American carol was written by the famous missionary to the Huron Indians, saint, and martyr John de Brebeuf, S.J. (1649), who labored among the Hurons from 1626 until he was captured and slowly tortured to death by the savage Iroquois when they brutally attacked and destroyed the Huron mission in 1649 and 1650.

Brebeuf wrote in the Huron language the Christmas hymn Jesous Ahatonnia (Jesus is born), which he adapted from a sixteenth-century French folk song. This hymn was preserved by the Hurons who escaped the devastating attacks of the Iroquois and were later settled by their missionaries on a reservation at Loretto, near Quebec. There Erienne de Villeneuve recorded the words of the hymn; they were found among his papers after his death (1794) and later published with a French translation.19

In recent years Brebeufs hymn has been reintroduced into the treasury of American Christmas carols. J. E. Middleton, of Toronto, wrote a free English translation to fit the ancient French melody. The music was arranged by Edith Lovell Thomas, music director at Radburn, New Jersey.

"It came upon the midnight clear" was written by Edmund H. Sears (1876), a Unitarian minister of Weston, Massachusetts, and set to music by Richard S. Willis (1900), a journalist and editor in Detroit, who in his youth was a personal friend of Mendelssohn.20

One of the most beloved of American carols is the famous "O little town of Bethlehem," written by Phillips Brooks (1893), rector of Trinity Church (Episcopal) in Boston, and later Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts. He visited the Holy Land, and the impression made on him by the Christ Child's birthplace inspired him to write this poem three years after his return, in 1865, to Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, where he was then stationed. Louis H. Reamer (1908), the organist there and teacher in the church school, wrote the tune. It was first sung by the children of Holy Trinity Sunday School, on Christmas 1868.21

"We three kings of Orient are" was written and set to music in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins, Jr. (1891), an Episcopalian minister. It was published in 1883 and has been popular with children ever since.22

Another famous American carol is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem entitled "Christmas Bells" ("I heard the bells on Christmas Day"). He wrote it for Christmas 1863.23 The tune is called "Waltham" and was composed by the English organist John Baptist Calkin (1905).

A familiar carol in the United States is "Angels we have heard on high," most probably a translation of an old French or Flemish antiphon hymn of the sixteenth century. (An antiphon hymn is a free poetic translation, in the vernacular, of one or more antiphon verses in liturgical texts.) This particular hymn was probably inspired by the antiphons of the Lauds in the Divine Office of Christmas Day. The present version of the English text was written by Earl Marlatt, dean of the School of Theology at Boston University, in 1937; the arrangement for the "Gloria" was made by Edward Shippen Barnes in 1937.24

A startling example of nineteenth-century American folk music from the Kentucky mountains is the song "Christ was born in Bethlehem, and Mary was his niece." Another popular one, "The snow lay on the ground," is of uncertain origin. The melody was taken from an old Italian pifferari (pipers') melody. One of the favorites among many Negro contributions to American' Christmas music is "Rise up, shepherd, an foller." 25

More recent contributions include Gesu Bambino with words by Frederick Marten and music by Pierro Yon (1943), organist and choirmaster' of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. It is contrapuntal, in the pastoral manner, against the Adeste Fideles melody.26

The well-known Christmas song "O Holy Night" is of French origin. Adolphe Charles Adam (1856), professor at the Paris Conservatory of Music, wrote the tune to a poem (Cantique de Noel) of M. Cappeau de Roquemaure. The English translation was made by John Sullivan Dwight (1893) ,27

Despite the devoted research of musical scholars, the origin of the beloved Christmas hymn Adeste Fideles (O come, all ye faithful) is still shrouded in mystery. The original Latin poem is sometimes ascribed to Saint Bonaventure (1274), a Franciscan priest, later archbishop and cardinal. However, the original manuscripts, containing text and tune, date from the eighteenth century and are signed by John Francis Wade (1786), a music dealer of the English Catholic colony at Douay, France. Marcus Antonius de Fonseca (Portogallo), chapelmaster to the king of Portugal (1830), has also been mentioned as composer of the music. This tune is reported to have been sung at the Portuguese embassy chapel in London at the end of the eighteenth century. Dr. Frederick Oakely (1880), an Anglican minister and later Catholic priest, wrote the English version of the text in 1841.28

In Austria—especially in its Alpine provinces—many parishes had, and some still retain, local poets who continue to add new songs to the old treasury. In little towns and on the farms of the Alpine sections, men and women of "singing families" and rural choirs are continually improvising words and music, like minstrels of old. These simple folk have a native instinct for music and poetry. Many of them play instruments (violin, flute, zither, guitar), and improvise Christmas songs as they gather round the hearth. Any student of Christmas lore will find in Austria and Bavaria a rich treasury of popular carols, ancient -and modern, hidden away in little country places. Most of them are as yet unknown to the world in general, though the famous Trapp singers have brought many of them to this country and they are now included in many Christmas programs here.

One such familiar Austrian carol, written by a parish priest in the small town of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, in 1818, is the familiar Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night).29 It had been hidden among the manuscripts of the cliureli choic for some time, until it -was found by a music lover -who brought it to the Rainers, a family of singers, in the Tyrol (Zillertal). They began to sing it at their concerts, and it gradually became widely used in Austria and Germany. On their American concert tour (1839-1843) they brought the new carol with them and sang it before large audiences.30 Within a few years it conquered the hearts of the nation. Not only in America, but all over the world, "Silent Night" has become the most beloved of all carols, a truly international Christmas anthem.

Here is the legend of its origin: On Christmas Eve 1818, the parish priest of Oberndorf, Joseph Mohr, was notified that repairs of the church organ, which had broken down a few days before, could not be finished in time for midnight Mass. This was a great disappointment to the priest and his flock, since the music for the High Mass, which the choir had prepared, could not be sung. To lessen the disappointment, Father Mohr decided to surprise his people with a new Christmas song. He went to work immediately and wrote three stanzas of a caroL the first stanza of which was inspired by the sight of a baby whose ailing mother he had visited earEer in the day. Having finished the text, he took it to his friend Franz Gruber, teacher and organist in the nearby viUage of Amsdorf. Gruber composed the tune within a few hours. At midnight Mass, the hushed congregation in the little church heard the first performance of Stille Nacht.31

Today a modest monument in Oberndorf perpetuates the memory of the men who gave us "Silent Night": the poet, Joseph Mohr (1848), and the composer, Franz Gruber (1863).

Stille Nacht was first performed to the accompaniment of a guitar. The composer later wrote an orchestration for strings, French horn, and organ. Mohr called it Weihnachtslied (Christmas song). It was first pubEshed at Leipzig in 1834. The commonly used English translation appeared in a Methodist hymnal in Boston in 1871, and was compiled from various preceding translations. The name of the compiler is unknown.

In Latin countries, especially in rural sections of Spain and South America, many towns have their traditional Christmas carols which have now become part of American Christmas lore in certain sections of the country. These are carols of childlike simplicity, often humorous in parts, but always devout and tender. The local carol (El Nino Jesus ha nacido ya) of the town Ocumare de la Costa in Venezuela, a jewel of popular Christmas music, is a good illustration:

The little child, Jesus is already here The Kings and the shepherds adore without fear There is much to behold for the wise and the fool: Saint Joseph, the Virgin; the ox and the mule. Let us adore the little child With pleasure and happy cheer; Let us adore as the Magi do As the Magi adore Him here.32


The first mention of Christmas caroling in America was recorded by Bartholomew Vimont, S.J., in his report on the state of the Huron mission, dated Quebec, October 1, 1645. In it he described the zeal and devotion that the Christian Hurons displayed in celebrating Christmas. Speaking of the Indians at Mackinac (now Macinaw, Michigan), one of the most remote missions of New France, he said:

The savages have a particular devotion for the night that was enlightened by the birth of the Son of God. There was not one who refused to fast on the day that preceded it. They built a small chapel of cedar and fir branches in honor of the manger of the infant Jesus. They wished to perform some penance for better receiving Him into their hearts on that holy day, and even those who were at a distance of two days' journey met at a given place to sing hymns in honor of the new-born Child. . . . Neither the inconvenience of the snow nor the severity of the cold could stifle the ardor of their devotion.33

This ancient custom of singing carols in public was revived in America toward the end of the last century. In Boston the first organized Christmas Eve caroling took place on the streets of Beacon Hill in 1885.34 In St. Louis caroling was started in 1909 by groups of young people who sang their carols before every house with a lighted candle in its windows. Organized groups of carol singers may now be found in thousands of American cities and towns.

In French Canada, the caroling is performed either a few days before Christmas or on New Year's Eve, by young men and women dressed in old-style country costumes (La guignolee), who go from house to house, singing and collecting gifts of food and clothes for the poor of the town.

In Hungary, in Poland, and in other Slavic countries singers go from house to house carrying a huge star, lighted inside. After their carols are sung, some of the groups enact scenes from the Nativity, the visit of the Magi, the court of King Herod, and other events. This custom is called Kolednicy in Polish, "Bethlehem" in Hungarian.


Nativity Carols • 

This, the largest group, is made up of Christmas carols in the strict sense of the word, the main theme being the story of the Nativity itself. They reveal the reHgious feeling that the birth of Christ brings to the hearts of men, and usually express adoration, praise, love, gratitude, contrition, wonder^, joy, and similar emotions, like this ancient English carol:

A child is born in Bethlehem;

Rejoice, therefore, Jerusalem.

Low in the manger lieth He,

Whose kingdom without end sltall he . . .

All glory, Lord, to Thee be done,

Now seen in flesh, the Virgin's Son.35

Prayer Carols • 

This is the group of Christmas songs that is directly addressed to the Holy Child in wonder, devotion, and admiration. Every Christian nation has its treasury of such prayer carols. The most famous of them is the Austrian carol "Silent Night." Another beautiful example is the poem Tu scendi dalle stelle (Thou earnest from the heavens), written by Pope Pius IX (1878) and sung to a traditional melody:

Thou earnest down, O heaven's King,

From starry sky, And in a cave so poor and cold

I see Thee lie. I see Thee tremble, blessed God;

Why slould this be? Thy sacrifice, O love Divine,

Is all for me.36

Shepherd Carols • 

These songs flourished in Germany, Austria, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, as well as in the Slavic nations. They relate the message of the angel, the song of the heavenly hosts, the visit of the shepherds to the manger, and often describe their prayers and gifts. Many of these carols carry refrains imitating shepherds' instruments; for instance this English carol of the fifteenth century:

About the field they piped full right,

Even about the midst of the night;

They saw come down from heaven a light:

Tirle, tirle—so merrily

The shepherds began to blow.37

Noels • 

The noels are still another group of carols, of which we have many examples both in French and in English. The word "noel" or 'nowell" is generally repeated as a refrain, in the same sense as "news." The familiar carol "The First Nowel" has become a favorite Christmas song among all English-speaking people.38 An example of the noel refrain is these lines of another ancient English carol:

Noel, Noel, Noel,

Tidings good I think to tell.

The boar's head that we bring here,

Betokeneth a prince without peer

Is born today to buy us dear.

Noel, Noel,

Macaronics • 

A macaronic is a carol written partly in Latin, partly in the vernacular. There are many of these in French, English, and German. Here is the first stanza of Henry Suso's famous In dulci jubilo, a German macaronic of the fourteenth century, in English translation:

In dulci jubilo, Sing ye, and gladness show! See our bliss reclining

In praesepio,

The very sun outshining

Matris in gremio.

Alpha es et O,

Alpha es et.40

Lullaby Carols • 

These songs, as the classification suggests, make use of the lullabies of various countries, either picturing the Virgin Mary singing to the Holy Child or having the devout worshiper sing them directly to the Divine Babe, like this old Austrian carol:

Thy shining eyes, so blue and light, Thy tender cheeks, so soft and bright; I will remain forever Thine, O dearest Son, O child Divine. . . . [lullaby humming] 41

There is this endearing Czech lullaby, so typical of many similar songs among the Slavic nations. It is impossible to render in English the charming spirit of the original Czech text:

Hajej, nynej, Jesus dear, Sleep in peace, and do not fear.

We shall bundle you to rest, Keep you close to our breast.

Hajej, nynej, darling Child, Son of Mary, Saviour mild.42

Mystery Carols • 

These carols form a large group of medieval Christmas songs dehghtfully describing all manner of legendary events supposed to have happened to the Divine Child, One of the most charming mystery carols is the old Enghsh "Cherrie tree song."43 It begins:

As Joseph was a-walking,

He heard an angel sing: This night shall be born

Our heavenly king.

He neither shall be born

In housen or in hall, Nor in the place of Paradise,

But in an ox's stall.

He neither shall be clothed

In purple nor in pall, But all in fair linen,

As were babies all. . . .

Companion Carols • 

This is an interesting group of songs— mostly German—wherein the singer represents himself as accompanying the shepherds, or as taking their place, addressing the Child, or Mary and Joseph, in a simple, affectionate manner. Often a broad local dialect is used, as in the old Austrian carol, from the Tyrol, Jetzt hat sich halt aufgetan das himmlische Tor (The gates of Heavens glory did spring open suddenly). Here is a rollicking, joyous stanza:

So came we running to the crib,

I and also you, A beeline into Bethlehem,

Hopsa, trala loo:

"O, baby dear, take anything

Of all the little gifts we bring:

Have apples or have butter,

Maybe pears or yellow cheese; Or would you rather have some nuts,

Or plums, or what you please. Alleluja, alleluja;

Alle-, alle-, Alleluja."44'

Dance Carols • 

Dance carols, usually ring dances accompanied by singing, were greatly favored in medieval times. The altar boys, for example, in the Cathedral of Seville, Spain, used to dance before the altar on Christmas and other feast days, accompanied by song and the sound of castanets. In the Minster of York, England, until the end of the sixteenth century -choirboys performed a dance- in the aisle of the church after morning prayers on Christmas Day. In France it was customary to dance a bergerette (shepherd's dance) in churches at Christmas time. Dancing in churches was prohibited by an ecclesiastical council at Toledo in 590, but the custom had become so much a part of the Christmas festivities that in some places dancing survived until the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; in England, right up to the Reformation, in Spain even longer.45

Christmas dancing is still practiced in the Scandinavian countries, where carols are sung as the people perform a ring dance around the Christmas tree. A popular dance carol is the Swedish Nu ar det Jul igen (Now it is Christmas again):

Cradle-Rocking • 

This word comes from the German Kindel-wiegen (Rocking of the Child), a custom that originated in Germany and Austria in the fourteenth century. It became widespread as a substitute for the Nativity plays, after they were banned. A priest would carry to the altar a cradle with a figure of the Christ Child; there the cradle was rocked while the congregation sang and prayed. The service ended with the devotional kissing of the Christ Child at the altar rail.47

During the sixteenth century this custom, too, was forbidden m churches, but it survived for a long time as a devotional practice in many convents and in private homes. In the Tyrol, girls dressed in white carried the cradle from house to house, rocking it and singing carols. In other parts of Austria, and in Bavaria, .mothers would rock the cradle to obtain the favor of having children, or to implore the Divine Child for special blessings upon their families.48 The rocking was accompanied by songs written for this particular purpose, for instance, this German carol of the sixteenth century:

Joseph, dearest Joseph mine,

Help me rock my baby fine! What Gabriel foretold Is now fulfilled,'

Eia, Eia, The Virgin bore a child As the Fathers wisdom willed.

Eia, Eia. Joseph, dearest Joseph mine, Help me rock my baby fine!49

Christmas Yodeling • 

Christmas yodeling is an old custom in the Austrian Tyrol, where it seems a natural way to honor the Divine Child. The mountaineers' song without words conveys deep feelings of devotion, love, and affection. This is, of course, the genuine yodel, not the modern hillbilly type so familiar to American radio fans. True Christmas yodeling is capable of great tenderness of voice and melody as the subtle changes from chest tones to head tones are delicately made by the yodelers.

They do this before the crib or in the open on mountain peaks during the holy season. It was performed in the churches during past centuries. Some yodels are based on old traditional tunes; others are improvised on the spur of the moment Often the yodeling forms a background as Christmas carols are sung.























Keith Hunt