On Christmas night all Christians sing

It wouldn't be Christmas without carols. Nick Baty delves into the history of some of our best-loved festive songs. And we've added a few videos so you can sing-along.

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Back in 1848, a little girl complained to her godmother that Sunday School was rather dull. The good lady responded by re-writing the basic of Christian belief in poetry. The result was Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander’s book, Hymns for Little Children.


Several titles have survived in our modern hymnbooks but perhaps her best known is the Christmas hymn, Once in Royal David’s City.


But many of our Christmas hymns, songs and carols had rather more ignominious beginnings.

The carol we know as Ding Dong Merrily On High was a dance tune called Bransle L’Offical.

We don’t quite know where it came from but Thoinot Arbeau, a canon of Langres in Eastern France, included it in his book, Orchesographie – a collection of dance music and steps.


The canon recommended dancing “to make manifest whether lovers are in good health and sound in all their limbs”. And he said it was an occasion when the couple might kiss “to perceive if either has unpleasant breath or exhales a disagreeable odour”.


Good King Wenceslaus also started life as a dance tune for the branle or brawl – a sort of medieval hokey cokey – and is first recorded as a spring carol in a collection of pious songs dated 1582.

The Good King himself was Duke and Patron of Bohemia. He murdered by his brother, Buleslav, for promoting Christianity against his mother’s wishes.


The words of this song are by John Mason Neale, an Anglican clergyman who himself might have benefitted from treading in St Wenceslaus’s footsteps. He had to resign from his post as Provost of St Ninian’s Cathedral, Perth, as the climate was too cold for him.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing started as the work of John Wesley, founder of Methodism. In most modern hymn books, it is accredited to at least three writers. They actually took Wesley’s words and adapted them to suit their own Christian traditions.


Even the music of this hymn wasn’t especially written. It comes from a choral work by Felix Mendelssohn for male voices and orchestra. Sixteen years after it was written, it was published by Dr W Cummings, organist at Waltham Abbey, adapted to fit Wesley’s words.

Similarly, the music of O Come All Ye Faithful may have been borrowed from an old drinking song. And it was published under various titles including Air By Reading 1680 and The Portuguese Hymn. A collection published in 1843 notes that “it is sung in every Catholic Chapel throughout England”.

The words probably come from 17th or 18th century France or Germany. They were translated from the Latin by Frederick Oakley, incumbent of All Saints, Margaret Street. London. He originally translated the opening line as “Ye faithful approach ye”. When it was published in 1852 it had been altered to the words we know today. But by that time, Oakley had been suspended from clerical duties for reactionary actions and had been received into the Catholic Church.

There are very few Christmas carols from the United States. The Pilgrim Fathers, holding a puritan view of the Church’s seasons, took no carols with them. We Three Kings by Dr JA Hopkins was among the first Christmas songs to come out of the new world.

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear is the work of an American Unitarian Minister and one of the few Victorian hymns to take up the Christmas message of peace – although the theme was soon taken up by Bishop Phillips Brooks in O Little Town of Bethlehem.


Bishop Brooks had tried his vocation as a teacher but was, by his own admission, “a conspicuous failure”. He must have been popular with children though. There’s a tale of a girl of five who, hearing of the bishop’s death, exclaimed, “O Mother, how happy the angels will be”.

This is surely the stuff of our best-loved carols – that child-like simplicity summed up in the words of Away in a manger. No-one knows who wrote the words – although they have been ascribed to German reformer , Martin Luther – but the music was written by William James Kirkpatrick, who was, perhaps aptly, a carpenter.


The Holly and the Ivy may have its origins in the pagan festival of Saturnalia which occurred around this time of year. And there’s no doubt that mythological and apocryphal tales abound during the festive season. The Bible tells us nothing of the four-legged chap mentioned in Little Donkey. But is does tell is the shepherds saw an angel while, according to verse 2 of The First Nowell, “they looked up and saw a star”.


In 1928, Percy Dearmer wrote in the preface to The Oxford Book of Carols, “People crowd into our churches at Christmas, Easter and Harvest Festivals, largely because the hymns for those occasions are full of a sound hilarity.


“If carol books were in continual use, that most Christian and most forgotten element would be vastly increased in some of its loveliest forms all through the year.”