Christmas carols originated as songs sung to celebrate the winter solstice. As pagan traditions began to be adopted by Christians, the songs meant to commemorate the shortest day of the year were replaced by hymns sung in churches and began to have religious themes. European composers began to write Christmas carols but most were sung in Latin. The language changed when St. Francis of Assisi began to act out nativity plays in the early 1200s. During these plays, songs were caroled in the language of the community where the plays took place. Because they could understand the words, the audience could sing along.
Minstrels and traveling singers began to take these carols on their travels, changing the words to make them appropriate for the people who listened to them. It became a tradition for Christmas carols to be sung in the homes and around the community around Christmastime.
In 2014, TIME Magazine reported that the most popular recorded Christmas song is “Silent Night.” Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to “Silent Night” in 1816 and Franz Xaver Gruber put them to music in 1818 for the Christmas Eve mass at the St. Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, Austria. Although the carol is usually sung as a slow, melancholy melody, the original piece was composed as an energetic, lively tune.
One of the most well-known Christmas carols, “Jingle Bells” was originally published in 1857 under the name “One Horse Open Sleigh” as a Thanksgiving song. Some controversy surrounds the history of the song. Some historians believe that it was originally sung by a school choir, while others think the words were too indecent for children of that time to be singing. A plaque in Medford, Massachusetts, indicates that the song was originally composed at a local tavern, but James Lord Pierpont, the song’s composer, lived in Georgia at the time it was composed. “Jingle Bells” was the first song broadcast from outer space, in 1965.
Although Irving Berlin composed this Christmas song, most people attribute the song to Bing Crosby, who first performed it in 1941, one year after it was written, on his radio show on Christmas Day. The song wasn’t too popular initially but rose to the top of the Billboard charts for 11 weeks in 1942. The original master recording was damaged, so Crosby rerecorded it in 1947.
“Jingle Bell Rock”
Originally released in 1957, “Jingle Bell Rock” has been recorded by more than 25 other artists, including Hillary Duff, George Strait, Neil Diamond and Johnny Mathis. The song was composed by Joseph Carleton Beal and James Ross Boothe, two professionals for whom “Jingle Bell Rock” was the only hit.
Whether you’re snuggling around the fire singing carols with your family or strolling around the neighborhood, singing with friends, you’ll be carrying on a time-honored tradition. Christmas carols are some of the most widely recognized songs sung today.
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