Tis the season: Where our favourite Christmas carols come from

Google Doodle pays tribute to annual musical festivities

Will Worley@willrworley
Thursday 22 December 2016 18:44
Aled Jones on Christmas Carols

Tis the season to be jolly and for many people, Christmas carolling is a crucial part of holiday proceedings.

Singing songs with friends and family is a warmly celebrated part of Christmas, and even in cyberspace, the Google Doodle has paid tribute to the annual musical festivities.

But where do these traditional ditties come from?

Read on for the stories of our favourite carols.

Silent Night

One of the most recognisable Christmas carols, Silent Night was composed in 1818 in the small Austrian village of Oberndorf, then part of the Austrian Empire.

Originally ‘Stille Nacht’, its lyrics were written by a young priest, Father Joseph Mohr two years before they were put to music by a local organist Franz Xaver Gruber, who went on to compose numerous other carols – though none as popular.

It has been translated into an estimated 300 languages but is most well known for being the song which led to the informal Christmas truce of 1914, after British and German troops heard each other singing it in their respective languages.

God rest you merry, Gentlemen

This song is one of the oldest which have survived to the present day and is believed to date back to at least the 1600s and is thought of as part of the English folk oral tradition.

Its lyrics have varied over the years but was recorded in a 1760 songbook. It was also a Victorian favourite and was referenced in Charles Christmas Carol, written in 1843.


The Twelve Days of Christmas

Legend has it that this song was used by Roman Catholics in England to covertly express their faith under the many historical phases of prejudice against their faith in the country. The different creatures were said to represent different biblical characters and articles of faith.

However, this has never been proven and remains a theory.

It most likely came about as a memory game, as singers have to remember all the previous verses.

Joy to the World

Written in 1719, this is one of the oldest recorded Christmas carols, and was first known as a hymn. It was composed by Isaac Watts after he complained of “atrocious worship” in Church and a priest challenged him to come up with something better.

Watts went on to be a prolific hymn writer, penning at least 750 songs.

O Little Town of Bethlehem

One of the few America carols, this song was written in 1868 by Phillip Brooks, a Philadelphia preacher, and put to music by his organist, Lewis Redner.

He was inspired to write it after a visit to Bethlehem, where he participated in the annual Christmas service. He travelled to the town on horseback from Jerusalem to be at the five hour Church of Nativity service.

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