At Christmas, our senses come alive. We savor a steaming cup of cocoa, sniff the spicy smell of cloves and cinnamon in the kitchen, enjoy twinkling lights on our tree.
And everywhere – shopping, baking, commuting, and working – we hear the familiar notes of traditional and newer Christmas carols. One Los Angeles-area FM radio station – KOST 103.5 – began playing Christmas music this year on November 8.
Still, many of us have no idea about their history, how Christmas carols developed, and what they mean.
The ubiquitous songs we hear repeatedly each holiday season have their roots in ancient pagan chants, but in English the first Christmas carols appeared in a 1426 book by John Awdlay, a chaplain in Shropshire, who listed 25 carols probably sung by groups of wassailers who went caroling from house to house.
Publication of Christmas music books in the 19th century helped to spread carols’ popular appeal. The first appearance in print of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” “The First Noel,” “I Saw Three Ships,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” was in “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern,” published in 1833 by William Sandys. The Victorian era gave rise to such favorites as “Good King Wenceslas” and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”
Christmas carols have some surprising history and meanings.
- “The 12 Days of Christmas” actually was written as an act of rebellion, created centuries ago when Catholicism was outlawed. Each verse references religious beliefs but, sung as the carol, it could be performed in public without fear of persecution. “True love” refers to God and “partridge in a pear tree” stands for Jesus dying on the wooden cross.
- “Carol of the Bells” wasn’t about Christmas at all. It was a Ukrainian folk chant called “Shchedryk” that welcomed the spring and described a bird flying into someone’s house to tweet good fortune. Composer Peter Wilhousky heard it and wrote the English lyrics.
- “Do You Hear What I Hear?” written by Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker, was penned as a response to the Cold War. When sung in a church, “a star, a star, dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite,” refers to the star of Bethlehem, but also describes a nuclear missile.
- Based on the 1863 poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written when his son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union Army as a soldier during the Civil War. Charles did so without his father’s permission. Having just lost his wife in a fire, Longfellow turned to poetry as an outlet for his sorrow.
- Irving Berlin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, wrote “White Christmas.” Legend says he wrote the song, which contains just 54 words and 67 notes, while working away from home and missing his family. “White Christmas” aired on the radio shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and, when performed overseas the following Christmas, it reminded homesick soldiers of their families.
- “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the story of the scrappy young reindeer who felt like an outcast but ended up saving Christmas, was written by Robert L. May. Having skipped grades, May was younger than his classmates and felt that he didn’t belong, so he wrote himself into Rudolph.