In what’s called a “cumulative song,” The Twelve Days of Christmas recounts each of the gifts given to the singer by their “true love.” This British 18th Century song began as a memory-and-forfeit game, which means it was meant to be sung in a group of children as a party game.
This Christmas carol originally began as a Thanksgiving song. Published as “One Horse Open Sleigh,” it commemorated the popular sleigh races of the 1800s. It became so popular that in 1965 it became the first song broadcast from space as astronauts sent it as a Christmas message to mission control.
Composed around 1818 in Austria, the song went from a small church to a group of traveling folk singers who performed it for Franz I of Austria and Alexander I of Russia. Continuing its journey, Silent Night reached the United States in 1839. Today, it’s translated into 140 languages and remains one of the most somber yet beautiful carols.
Joy to the World was written in 1719 by British writer Isaac Watts. Throughout the years the carol changed, finally settling on the 1848 version as a tune named “Antioch.” Since then, Joy To The World has been recorded by Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Neil Diamond, Vic Damone, Pat Boone and the Supremes.
Written in France, this carol was initially accepted by the French Catholic Church, but when religious leaders caught word that its authors were Jewish and socialist, they declared it unfit for services. The song refused to fade, however, eventually reaching the US where its authors witnessed it becoming the first song broadcast over radio waves.
Written by a schoolteacher in 1941, The Little Drummer Boy was based on the English translation of a Czech Christmas carol. The song was recorded by the Austrian Trapp Family Singers (the family that inspired “The Sound of Music”) and later by Bing Crosby, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, and Stevie Wonder.
Deck The Halls is a Christmas song in English, but a New Years’ song in Wales. The English version was written in 1862 and celebrates the joys of decorating a space for the Christmas season. The original lyrics, however, advocated a boozier celebration, “Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel.”
Tailor-made for Christmas carolers, it's no surprise that We Wish You A Merry Christmas is one of today’s most popular carols for performances. Many versions of the song speak to the wassailing tradition of groups going door-to-door offering songs for a drink from the wassail bowl, a pot containing mulled yuletide cider.
The somewhat mysterious origins of this song appear to date back to the 1500s since using “rest you” to mean “to keep” was most common then. It’s unclear when the lyrics changed from “rest you” to “rest ye," but historians believe that it was just an attempt to make the song sound older.
Away In A Manger is a story wrought with historical controversy, as many early sources credit the lyrics to Martin Luther. Today, however, historians have debunked this myth, since none of Luther’s own writings make mention of it and the style of writing simply doesn't match that of Luther’s own prose.
This song has one of the most mysterious origin stories, being sometimes attributed to British songwriters and sometimes to King John IV of Portugal. Today, O Come, All Ye Faithful is performed as the penultimate hymn at the carol festival at the Choir of King’s College, the world’s most renown choral performances.
This popular Christmas carol is a loose reinvention of the French carol, “Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes” (literally translating to “the angels in our countryside”). Both the melody and the lyrics were clearly inspired by the original French piece, but aren’t quite close enough to be considered a real translation.
King Wenceslas refers to Saint Wenceslaus, sometimes called Václav the Good, who was the Duke of Bohemia from 921 to 935 and venerated as “the righteous king” for his great piety and charity. After his murder in 935, he was sainted and Holy Roman Emperor Otto bestowed on Wenceslaus the posthumous title of King.
In the early 1800s, the use of “Noel” for Christmas was gaining popularity. “Noel” is borrowed from the French greeting, “Joyeaux Noel,” which itself stems from “natalis,” the Latin word for birth, and a play on “nouvelles,” French for news, as in, the Good News. Thanks to this song, we recognized "Noel" by the 1820s in the US.
This Christmas carol famously takes its melody from Greensleeves, a beloved Romanesca folk song telling the story of a suitor spurned by the object of his affections, “casting [him] off discourteously.” Although Greensleeves remains the more popular version in England, most Americans recognize the famous earworm melody as the carol, What Child Is This.
Originally titled “The Three Kings of Orient,” the carol centers around the story of the Magi visiting the nativity scene. Of our best known Christmas carols, We Three Kings is notable for having the closest musical similarity to Middle Eastern music that would have been popular at the time of the nativity.
It was during a dark time of personal melancholy that an American pastor wrote this famous carol. It was set to music in 1850 and arranged in B-flat for a somber, but hopeful feeling. The carol remains especially touching today not just for its lyrical and melodic beauty, but for dealing with issues of war and peace.
Of all the popular Christmas carols, The Holly and the Ivy seems to have the most in touch with the pre-Christian Germanic celebration of Yuletide during the winter solstice. The Holly and the Ivy connects the medieval symbolism of the holly plant with early Christianity where it’s been a popular advent decoration since the 15th Century.
This 17th Century English Christmas carol has confused geographically-minded listeners as it mentions three ships sailing into Bethlehem, but the nearest body of water, the Dead Sea, is 20 miles away. The song has had a long life in contemporary pop music, even making appearances on The Teletubbies and The Muppet Family Christmas.
The 1739 song has undergone several transformations, including modifying the opening verse from “Hark, how all the welkin rings” to the now eponymous “Hark, the herald angels sing.” This was likely done as “welkin,” the Middle English word for clouds or heavens, fell out of common usage and would have been confusing to a modern listener.
Thought to be the second oldest secular Christmas song, Up On The Rooftop was written in 1864. It is widely considered to be the first to focus exclusively on Santa Claus, arriving just 35 years after the poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly known as “The Night Before Christmas” was published.
This Christmas carol has a long and elaborate history dating all the way back to the Byzantine era of the 500s, with origins in the Latin hymn, “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.” It’s an inspired carol with the lyrics perfectly matching the music’s mix of contemplative somberness and joyful epiphany.
O Little Town of Bethlehem honors the birthplace of Jesus and the nativity scene in the early Christian tradition. Bethlehem is in current day Palestine, but back then was under Roman rule in the days of either Herod the Great or Caesar Augustus. Today, Bethlehem is featured in Christmas celebrations for a multitude of traditions.
O Tannenbaum is a German carol that translates to “Oh Christmas tree.” The tune, although not the lyrics, was used as Florida, Michigan, Maryland, and Iowa’s state songs. One of the most beloved and beautiful versions of O Tannenbaum is the arrangement by Vince Guaradli on the 1965 animated special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Originally a traditional African-American spiritual song, Children, Go Where I Send Thee was first printed in 1936 but the song likely dates back to sometime in the 17th or 18th centuries. It's been recorded by several choirs and pop singers, including Neil Diamond, Natalie Merchant, The Weavers, and Kenny Rogers.