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Walk With Me Through the History of The Christmas Carol Featuring your Favorite Christmas Melodies


I heard the bells on Christmas Day
their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 
                                                                                      -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow-1863—

And so was coined a popular Christmas carol that was put to music in 1956 by none other than American songwriter Johnny Marks famous for his own iconic song written for Gene Autry, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.

What’s Christmas without the very essence of Christmas, The Christmas Carol. The most beautiful medium of exaltation and praise in commemoration of the birth of the Christ child. The Christmas carol holds a special place in the heart of every person irrespective of religion as a means of celebration of the most heartwarming festival of mankind, Christmas!!

While researching on material for this article on the history of the Christmas carol I came across one of the earliest carols written by a Canadian Jesuit missionary Jean De Brebeuf in 1643. As he lived among the Huron’s in Canada, the song was called the Huron carol or Twas in the moon of wintertime. It is regarded as Canada’s oldest Christmas song.

Although the earliest known Christmas hymns date back to the Roman era of the 4th century, it wasn’t till the post Franciscan period that the trend of Christmas caroling got underway. The tradition of Christmas carols was influenced by St Francis of Assisi when he began organizing nativity plays in Italy in the year 1223. The new trend grew in popularity and spread throughout Europe. By 1426, the tradition of plays soon evolved into groups of people visiting homes and singing Christmas songs where the term carol was used in a publication titled Caroles of Cristemas published in the same year by an English chaplain John Awdlay.  

The most famous Christmas carol of them all was composed in 1816

In 1816, a German catholic priest Father Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Salzburg Austria wrote the lyrics of a song which required to be set to music. He wanted it sung at Christmas Eve and so took the help of the organ and choirmaster Franz Gruber who composed one of the most beautiful pieces in the history of Christmas carols. The lyrics were written in German but were translated to English forty years later by An American Episcopal priest John Freeman Young. SILENT NIGHT HOLY NIGHT!! the most famous of all Christmas carols was born. Its original name was Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!”. I have listed two versions of the song sung most beautifully by the Kings college Cambridge

Silent Night, 36 Chowringhee Lane

Another Version of Silent Night really touched me when I saw Aparna Sen’s movie 36 Chowringhee lane starring Jennifer Kendall kapoor. Somehow it reflected such a cruel diversity between rich and poor and makes us appreciative of the fact that though we may not have riches at Christmas, we should be thankful even if we have a roof above our heads.

O Come All Ye Faithful, 1852

 In 1852 another book called the Piae Cantiones was published which Listed Latin versions of popular Christmas carols still sung in churches today. One of them which we all know was  Adeste Fideles Or O come all ye faithful. Although the words of Adeste Fideles originated in the 13th century, it evolved into its current form in the 18th century. Heres a uique take on the hymn by Pentatonix.

O Little Town of Bethlehem, 1865

Cut to 1865 and one of the most spiritual carols was born reflecting truly the joyous aspect of the nativity enshrouded by the humble town of Bethlehem. O little town of Bethlehem was created by Phillip Brooks an Episcopalian preacher who taught at Yale. In 1865 Brooks actually took part in a journey on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. He had also participated in a five hour nativity celebration on Christmas Eve. His experience and journey was so profound that it inspired him to write down the carol whose first public performance was conducted in 27th December 1868 and sung by the children’s choir of his own church. who better than Nat king Cole for this one

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, 1918

Perhaps the most beautiful tradition of Christmas carols was epitomized in the Christmas Eve service of the Festival of nine lessons and carols held at King’s college Cambridge. Although I reside in India, I still hold this service dear to my heart as it induces an emotional sense of nostalgia. In my teens I was a huge fan of the BBC service broadcasted on shortwave radio and at Christmas the BBC would also broadcast the live service of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, I would make sure I heard it with the radio stuck to my ears at night when all were asleep.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols introduced in 1918 celebrates the birth of Jesus, the fall of humanity and the promise of the coming messiah. It is conducted through readings from the old and new testaments interspersed with the singing of hymns and carols. Take a look at the King’s College Cambridge singing Once in Royal David's City

The Carol of the Bells, 1914

In 1914 another popular Christmas theme was created into a carol. It was called the Carol of the Bells and was composed by Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych. The Lyrics were written by Peter Wilhousky. If  you haven't heard of Celtic Woman, then heres the time to hear them now.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, 1944

By the 20th century, Christmas carols soon influenced popular Christmas songs that appeared on Broadway and Hollywood musicals. Perhaps the most popular and beautiful rendering of a Christmas song was sung by the iconic Judy Garland in the movie Meet me in St Louis produced in 1944. How many love hearing Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, a true heartwarmer also made famous by Frank Sinatra. The song itself was written by composer Hugh Martin and Lyricist Ralph Blaine.

Silver Bells, 1950

By the 1950, one of the most popular Christmas songs gained instant popularity. All of you reading this will recognize this song as sung best in the baritone voice of Jim Reeves. However the song itself was first performed by Bob Hope in the motion picture Lemondrop. The very first studio recording of Silver Bells was sung by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards in 1850 and released by Decca records. The song was an instant success.

A White Christmas

Perhaps the most loved aspect of modern Christmas carols could be attributed to the 1950s era when several hits were born from Hollywood musicals. One of these was everyone’s favorite, White Christmas which was the title song of the movie by the same name in 1954. It starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen. The song was composed by none other than Irving Berlin and holds the Guinness world record as the highest selling single of all time crossing 100 million copies.
Since Jim reeves already features here, I can’t think of anyone better than to feature the king signing his version of White Christmas.

The list of Christmas cheer is endless. When reminiscing about the good times one realizes how times have changed where every person in Kolkata (then Calcutta will know) that though Christmas caroling is a much more organized affair by churches of today, it was much more fun in the days gone by when groups of boys and girls went door to door caroling all in hopes of making some pocket money for Christmas, me included.


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