The History & Origins of Christmas Carols
December 20, 2021

Ottawa Journal (December 20 – December 24, 2021)
David Tilson, M.P. (Dufferin-Caledon)

Christmas wouldn’t be the same without Christmas carols. They’re typically one of the first signs of the season that we notice - whether it be on the car radio or in the malls. We all have our favourite carols and they immediately ignite Christmas spirit in each of us. However, many of us are unsure of the history and origin of these popular songs which are a beloved part of our Christmas traditions.

According to Clement Miles, author of Christmas Customs and Traditions, the first known Christmas hymns arose in fourth century Rome. These Latin hymns, written by Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, were sober in nature and focused on the theological doctrine of the Incarnation in opposition to Arianism. Later in the ninth and tenth centuries, the Christmas “Sequence” or “Prose” arose in North European monasteries under the guidance of Bernard of Clairvaux in the form of rhymed stanzas. By the twelfth century, the Parisian monk Adam of St. Victor, worked with popular songs to develop something closer to the traditional Christmas carol as we know it.
During the thirteenth century, the tradition of Christmas songs being sung in their native language emerged in France, Germany, and Italy under the influence of Francis of Asissi. The first appearance of Christmas carols in the English language appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who listed twenty-five “carols of Cristemas,” which were most likely sung by groups of “wassailers,” who traveled from house to house. The songs we recognize today as carols were originally communal songs which were sung during celebrations such as harvest tide, as well as Christmas. It was sometime later that these songs were sung in church and became exclusively linked to Christmas.

Christmas carols continued to gain popularity following the Reformation in countries where Protestant churches gained prominence and Reformers such as Martin Luther, authored carols and utilized them in worship.

A commonly-recognized carol, “Adeste Fidelis” (O Come all ye faithful) appeared in its current form during the mid-eighteenth century; however, the words may have originated in the thirteenth century. Other popular carols, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” “The First Noel,” “I Saw Three Ships,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” first appeared in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833 by William B. Sandys. During this period, other popular carols arose, such as “Good King Wenceslas.” It was also during this time that “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” was written by Edmund H. Sears and Richard S. Willis in New England.

Most of the Christmas carols we enjoy today were written prior to the twentieth century; however, several have been written during the modern era. Many of these were composed by Alfred Burt, an American jazz musician, and include “All on a Christmas Morning” and “The Star Carol.”

Christmas carols enrich and enliven the holiday season. They bring us together and stir up cherished memories of the past. I hope you and your loved ones come together this holiday season to sing and enjoy your favourite Christmas carols. I also wish you a very Merry Christmas!