The Best Way to Spread Christmas Cheer: Christmas Carols Part 1

Where did some of our favorite Christmas songs come from? Each one has a unique story, some of which involve a broken organ, a statue of Johannes Gutenberg, and a chain email hoax.

(This is part 1. Read part 2 here.)

Silent Night

“Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” was written by the Catholic priest Joseph Mohr while he was stationed at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria. He was inspired to write the lyrics in 1816 when he went on a walk and looked out at a peaceful, snow-laden town, still and silent on a winter night. Two years later, Mohr asked his friend Franz Gruber, an organist and schoolmaster, to compose music to accompany the words for the Christmas Eve service at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. The song was performed by a guitar and a choir.

Chapel2.jpg
St. Nicholas Church, now called the Silent Night Chapel, in Obendorf, Austria.
Image by Gakuro, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Some accounts of the story say that the organ in the church was broken, and it could not be fixed until the spring when the snow had melted. Mohr was still determined to provide sacred music for Christmas Eve, and Gruber pulled through by composing a simple, peaceful melody on the guitar. Some versions blame a flood for the organ’s downfall, and others have a mouse chewing a hole in the leather of the organ bellows. But the truth is that guitar accompaniment was actually fairly common in Germany and Austria at this time, regardless of whether and why the organ was out of commission.

The song began to spread when an organ builder and repairman working at the church (maybe he was fixing the organ?) took a copy of the song to his home village. Two families of traveling folk singers picked it up and began to perform the song around northern Europe. The Strasser family performed “Stille Nacht” for the King of Prussia in 1834. The Rainer family of singers debuted the carol in America for the first time in 1839 outside Trinity Church in New York City. 

The Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, who was assigned to Trinity Church, had taken up the hobby of translating hymns into English. He translated “Stille Nacht” into “Silent Night,” and his words are now sung by millions of people in English-speaking nations. The song has been translated into over 300 languages, and it is one of the most popular Christmas songs worldwide.

The Twelve Days of Christmas

The Christian twelve days of Christmas take place between Christmas on December 25, celebrating the birth of Jesus, and Epiphany on January 6, commemorating the adoration of the Magi. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” song was likely French in origin. The earliest version of an English poem about the twelve days of Christmas is found in Mirth With-out Mischief, a children’s book from 1780. It was written in the style of a “memory and forfeits” game, in which players tested how well they remembered the lyrics as each new verse was added and had to forfeit something to their opponents if they made a mistake.

In the song, the twelve days of Christmas promise the following gifts:

Day 1: a partridge in a pear tree
Day 2: two turtle doves
Day 3: three French hens
Day 4: four calling birds
Day 5: five gold rings
Day 6: six geese a-laying
Day 7: seven swans a-swimming
Day 8: eight maids a-milking
Day 9: nine ladies dancing
Day 10: ten lords a-leaping
Day 11: eleven pipers piping
Day 12: twelve drummers drumming

There have been many variations to the lyrics over the years. Some carolers sang of “bears a-baiting,” “hares a-running, or “ships a-sailing,” and no one can ever seem to remember the order of the last four gifts. Sometimes “my mother gave” me the gifts, and other times “my true love sent” them to me.

Additionally, some variations came from mishearing the lyrics. The fourth day of Christmas came with “four colly birds” originally, using a regional English expression meaning “coal-black.” Those not familiar with the regional dialect substituted other words that made more sense to them—canary, colored, and curley birds are found in different versions of the song. Frederic Austin, the English composer who set the words to music in 1909, used “calling birds” in his version, which became the most popular variation.

Finally, some historians hypothesize that the five golden rings originally referred to the markings of a gold-necked pheasant. This would also make the golden rings gift consistent with the gifts for the rest of days 1–7, which are all birds.

Chrysolophus pictus -Melbourne Zoo, Australia-8a.jpg
A gold-necked pheasant.
Image by Snowmanradio, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

And speaking of gifts, each year, PNC financial services calculates the Christmas Price Index (CPI) by totaling the price of one set of all the gifts given in the song. In 2021, the CPI is $41,205.58. (If you include all the repetitions, the total cost of the gifts from the singer’s true love is $179,454.19.) The CPI is up a whopping 5.7% from the previous year and 5.9% from the year before that due to the impact of the COVID pandemic on the cost of purchasing each item—who knew that the price of birds increased so much year-over-year? The nine ladies dancing, eleven pipers piping, and twelve drummers drumming were out of the running for the 2020 CPI, since the pandemic led to cancellation of most live performances, so it’s good to see they’re back this year!

In the 1990s, an email chain began to circulate that claimed “The Twelve Days of Christmas” encoded messages about important articles of Christian faith (i.e., the partridge in a pear tree was Jesus, the two turtledoves were the Old and New Testaments, and so on). The story went that, beginning in the 1500s, Catholics in England were prohibited from practicing their religion in public or private when the English crown established itself as the supreme head of the church in England. Catholics in hiding thus sang “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to teach children a catechism of their faith during a time of persecution.

This myth has been thoroughly debunked, given that there is no evidence to support it, and that it first surfaced seemingly out of nowhere in the 1990s. Further, nearly all the religious tenets supposedly “hidden” in the song were basic beliefs shared by Anglicans and Catholics alike, as well as many other Christian denominations at the time. There is no reason they would need to be secretly encoded in a Christmas song. It’s also not clear how believers would have remembered what each gift stood for, since there is not a clear relationship between the gift and the idea that it supposedly represented (how do eight maids a-milking help people remember the eight beatitudes?).

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a largely secular song that celebrates the Christmas season with one’s “true love” and with gifts, dancing, and music—which is not a bad thing, considering that the made-up stories about it hark back to a time when one group of Christians decided to torture and kill another group of Christians.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

The hymn we now know as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was written by none other than Felix Mendelssohn in 1840 as a tribute to Johannes Gutenberg. It was performed as the second movement of Festgesang or Gutenberg Cantata during the unveiling of a statue of Gutenberg at the Leipzig Gutenberg Festival, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press.

A men’s chorus sang:

“Gutenberg, du wackrer Mann, du stehst glorreich auf dem Plan!” 

“Gutenberg, you valiant man, you stand glorious on the square!”

Mendelssohn wanted to publish the music with English lyrics but couldn’t find quite the right text. He wrote, “If the right [words] are hit at, I am sure that the piece will be liked very much by singers and hearers, but it will never do to sacred words.”

In the 1850s, a choirboy named William Cummings who had sung in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah hit on just the right text: “Hymn for Christmas-Day,” from Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739) by one of the founding ministers of Methodism, Charles Wesley. Wesley was a prolific hymnwriter and wrote over 6,500 of them.

The original tune for “Hymn for Christmas-Day” was slower and more solemn. Wesley intended it to be sung to the same tune as “Christ the Lord Is Ris’n Today.” The first line as written by Wesley was a little different, too:

“Hark! How all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings.”

“Welkin” was an obscure word (even then) meaning the sky or heaven. In 1758, George Whitefield, a fellow founder of Methodism, changed Wesley’s text to the more familiar first line:

Hark! The Herald Angels sing / Glory to the new-born King!

Deck the Hall

“Deck the Hall” comes from a sixteenth-century Welsh New Year’s Eve song with the same tune but completely different lyrics. A literal translation of “Nos Galan,” as it was called in Welsh, goes something like this:

The best pleasure on New Year’s Eve,
—Fa, la, &c.
Is house and fire and a pleasant family,
—Fa, la, &c.
A pure heart and brown ale,
—Fa, la, &c.
A gentle song and the voice of the harp,
—Fa, la, &c.

The “fa la la la la” is found in the original Welsh, and it was likely passed down from much earlier medieval ballads.

The song gained greater popularity when it was published in John Thomas’s Welsh Melodies in 1862, with the traditional text provided by the Welsh poet Talhaiarn side by side with English lyrics by the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant. Oliphant’s lyrics were not a translation of the lyrics but a new poem entirely. His version may not have been the “ancient Christmas carol” it promises to be, since it came from a New Year’s Eve song, but it did draw on the ancient Christmas and Yuletide traditions of the British Isles:

Deck the hall with boughs of holly,
Tis the season to be jolly,
Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel, –> Don we now our gay apparel
Troll the ancient Christmas carol.


See the flowing bowl before us, –> See the blazing yule before us,
Strike the harp and join the chorus.
Follow me in merry measure,
While I sing of beauty’s treasure. –> While I tell of Christmas treasure.

Fast away the old year passes,
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!
Laughing, quaffing all together, –> Sing we joyous all together.
Heedless of the wind and weather.

These verses have a decidedly Scottish flavor—“lads and lasses” and copious references to alcohol cement its origins in the British Isles. Notice that earlier version of the song was very merry indeed, and certain lines were later changed to remove references to drinking.  

The druids of the pre-Roman British Isles saw holly as a sacred tree that retained the light of the sun the whole year round, since it was an evergreen that remained green through the winter. They decorated their homes with the leaves and berries of the holly tree as a symbol of life—a practice that has perpetuated throughout time. The very word “holly” may even be a variation of the word “holy.” Later on, Christians in Europe saw the red holly berries as representing the blood of Christ and the leaves representing His crown of thorns. Writings from 1598 state that “every man’s house, the parish churches, the corners of streets, and marketplaces in London were decorated with English holly (Ilex aquifolium) during the Christmas season.” Peoples all over the world, including Romans, Greeks, Native Americans, and Chinese have used holly for centuries as an aspect of winter and new year celebrations.

And the “blazing yule” before us is the log burnt in the home during the twelve days of Christmas. This tradition comes from a Scandinavian winter solstice ritual in which the log is an “emblem of divine light,” a symbol of the return of the sun following the darkest day of the year. The Yule log was lit from the remains of last year’s log, which was carefully preserved for this purpose. It provided light and warmth as family gathered around the fire and told, yes, ghost stories, and predicted their future for the coming year. The Yuletide fire cleansed the remnants of the old year and was hoped to bring forth a fruitful spring.

Some other things you may have wondered:

To “troll” means to sing the song in a round.

“Quaffing” means drinking (alcohol).

From Austrian church services to Welsh New Year’s Eve festivities, the origins of our favorite Christmas carols are fascinating. What song would you like to know the history behind?

Sources

BBC. “Christmas Carols.” August 4, 2009. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/christmas/carols_1.shtml.

Lamoreauz, Aimee. “The History of Yule Logs Explained.” Grunge, November 26, 2020. https://www.grunge.com/285533/the-history-of-yule-logs-explained/.

Pai, Tanya. “The 12 Days of Christmas: The Story Behind the Holiday’s Most Annoying Carol.” Vox, December 1, 2020 . https://www.vox.com/21796404/12-days-of-christmas-explained.

Perry, Leonard. “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly.” The Green Mountain Gardener, University of Vermont Department of Plant and Soil Science. https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/holly.htm.

PNC. The PNC Christmas Price Index. 2021. https://www.pncchristmaspriceindex.com/#about.

Puchko, Kristy. “The Origins of 10 Popular Christmas Carols.” Mental Floss, December 24, 2019. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/60596/origins-10-popular-christmas-carols.

Riggle, Emma. “The Stories of Twelve Famous Carols.” All Classical Portland, December 20, 2019. https://www.allclassical.org/the-stories-of-twelve-famous-carols/.

Roland, Elisa. “Here’s the Surprising History Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols.” Reader’s Digest, October 21, 2021. https://www.rd.com/list/history-behind-christmas-carols/.

Wikipedia. “The Twelve Days of Christmas (Song).” Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Twelve_Days_of_Christmas_(song).

WRTI Your Classical and Jazz Source. “The Story Behind The Beloved Christmas Carol ‘Silent Night.’” December 19, 2020. https://www.wrti.org/arts-desk/2020-12-19/the-story-behind-the-beloved-christmas-carol-silent-night.

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