“Away in a Manger.” “Silent Night.” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” These names are probably what come to mind when you think about traditional Christmas carols. As classic as these songs are, they’re actually not that old—and definitely not as old as the first Christmas carols.
Christians have been celebrating Christmas since at least AD 336 (that’s supposedly when the Church first recognized December 25 as Christmas Day), but “Hark!” came around more than 1,300 years later in 1739. Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to “Silent Night” in 1818, and “Away in a Manger” was written even later in 1882. So what did people sing before these classics? Plus, find out why we sing Christmas carols in the first place!
The first musical composition ever to be associated with the Christmas holiday was likely “Angels Hymn,” a piece dating back all the way to AD 129. According to The New Daily, a Roman Bishop proclaimed that people should sing the song “in the Night of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour.” The song is so old that historians aren’t sure what it sounded like, but The New Daily reports that its singing was a solemn affair.
That theme continued after the Church officially recognized December 25 as Christmas in AD 336. Back then, Christians marked the holiday by singing hymns, not carols. Hymns are more solemn, religious songs, while carols were considered dances accompanied by music, according to NPR. The earliest of these 4th-century hymns was likely “Jesus Refulsit Omnium” (“Jesus, Light of All the Nations”), written by St. Hilary of Poitier in the 4th century. Another early Christmas hymn is “Corde natus ex Parentis” (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”). Christian poet Prudentius wrote the Latin poem that inspired this song in the 4th century as well, but it wasn’t set to music until centuries later. You won’t hear either of these early “carols” on the radio, but both are still sung at religious services around Christmas. Learn which Christmas carol you hear all the time was originally written for a different holiday.
As far as more familiar Christmas carols, those still don’t appear for centuries. “The Friendly Beasts,” a carol about the animals present at the Nativity, probably originated in France in the 12th century. Fast-forward 500 years and the world got “Adeste Fideles.” (It was translated into English as, “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” in 1841.) Just a few years after “Adeste Fideles” came “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” around 1760.
Now when you hear youngsters call Christmas carols by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra “old,” you can smile to yourself. They don’t even know the half of it. Next, find out the surprising history behind your favorite well-known carols.