Space, the Civil War, and UNESCO: 7 Surprising Stories About Your Favorite Christmas Carols
Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year - and it may be the most musical time of the year, too.
From artists and bands releasing holiday albums every year to the impossibility of even saying Christmas without hearing it in Mariah Carey’s voice, Christmas is always a time for song.
And while these holiday jingles are as much a celebration of the season as they are a hope that maybe - just maybe - it’ll be a hit that gets played for years to come, they all pale in comparison to the original Christmas hits:
These classic Christmas songs have stood the test of time, with many of them being over 100 years old.
(By comparison, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” came out a mere 28 years ago!)
While the original composers of these songs may not be getting the $2.5 million a year Mariah reportedly pulls in, these original Christmas songs still have plenty of staying power.
They’re a part of our favorite Christmas playlists and movies. They’re some of the first songs we learn on our new instruments (Jingle Bells starts with E played nine times… I’ll never forget it!).
These Christmas carols of old even inspired us to write about our own Christmas coin and Christmas story book , a holiday story of our own that we could share with our kids. To show that it's just as good to give as to receive, spin our Christmas coin and watch it land on its "Make a Wish" or "Be a Wish" side. Imagine something you'd like for yourself, or be someone else's wish and do something special for them.
To celebrate the impact Christmas carols have had on all of us, we’re taking time to dive into some of the most popular songs and reveal a surprising story about each one.
The Most Recorded Christmas Carol Ever
By all accounts, Mariah Carey has one of the most popular Christmas songs. In 2022, the most played Christmas song was Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.”
In terms of longevity, though, it’s time to turn the history books back to a song first written back in 1816 in German. Recorded two years later, it has become one of the most popular, recognizable, and now, recorded Christmas carols of all time.
The song? “Silent Night” by Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber.
According to the U.S. Copyright Office’s data on all the Christmas albums recorded since 1978, “Silent Night” had been recorded a total of 733 times by the mid 2010s. In second place? “Joy to the World”, with a meager 391 records.
One other fun fact about “Silent Night” - it’s on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List as a social practice throughout Austria. Of course, it comes as no surprise given how beautifully Christmas is celebrated all around the world!
The First Song Played In Space
When Chris Hadfield performed his version of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” from space, it was the song heard ‘round the world. Come to think of it, it was also a song played ‘round the world.
While perhaps the most appropriate cover of a song ever recorded, there is one title the song doesn’t have: the first song heard from space.
That crown goes to one of the most well-known Christmas songs ever.
It happened aboard Gemini 6 as it was orbiting earth in 1965. Astronauts Wally Schirra and Thomas Stafford made history by playing a song written 100 years earlier by James Lord Pierpoint in 1857.
The Christmas carol that ended up being the first song ever played in space? “Jingle Bells.”
Now a Christmas classic, “One Horse Open Sleigh” (its original title) was originally written as a Thanksgiving song.
The Christmas Carol Inspired By The Civil War
Now, the Civil War is not the most charming moment in American history. Despite its resulting in the end of slavery and the reuniting of the country, the Civil War’s influence still be felt today.
Felt and heard, actually, as one of the most popular Christmas carols was inspired by a poem written about the dreadful impacts of the Civil war.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Mariah Carey of American historical poetry, wrote two major hits in his time. One, Paul Revere’s Ride, an epic rhyming poem (which I memorized for gold stickers in my 3rd grade class) about Paul Revere riding to warn the Americans of the British invasion.
The second hit? A slightly more despairing poem about his son joining the Union army against his will, a mood made worse by Longfellow’s wife having recently died.
Though the lyrics can seem hopeless at points - especially the idea of hearing the season’s bells sounding out during wartime - that despair led to hope and to the recording of a timeless Christmas carol.
In 1872, a slightly modified version of the poem was released as “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.”
The Song Inspired By A Children’s Game
It’s true that many carols have their roots in religion. Yet some of the most timeless Christmas carols are a little more nonsensical.
One of our favorites is a British children’s song with a style of play called a memory-and-forfeit game.
How it works is a little like your favorite (or least favorite) corporate ice breaker, the one where you start in a circle and one person says their name (or a fact, or some other themed), then the next repeats the first name and introduces a second, and so on, until the circle is complete and everyone’s successfully repeated everything.
This Christmas carol is built on the same idea. Each child recalls a verse that the previous child sang, then adds their own verse for the “memory” portion of “memory-and-forfeit.” The forfeit? That happens if a verse is forgotten, and the price to pay could involve a kiss or giving up a piece of candy.
So, what carol is based on a bunch of repetition? And gets a little bit longer after each verse?
Yes, “The Twelve Days of Christmas!”
The Carol About Caroling
Since Christmas carols started appearing in some form in the 4th century AD, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the first Christmas carol was.
Instead, we’re going to share which carol is the most about Christmas caroling. Yes, the caroling carol.
Christmas caroling can be traced back to the 13th century in England, though it wasn’t always about Christmas… or even about singing. It involved the more general idea of “wassail” (wassail-ing?), which is translated from the Old Norse word “ves heill” and means “be well and in good health.”
Over time, those wishes of wellness and health began to be grouped under the song “Here We Come-A-Wassailing.”
In case that song is still not ringing any jingle bells, you may know it by its more modern name:
“We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”
For more than 700 years, caroling has been at its core a way of spreading cheer in the holidays. With that, there may be no more fitting Christmas carol than the one whose contents are quite literally about spreading cheer on the holidays!
One Of The Most Debated Christmas Carols
Given how many Christmas carols are more than a century old, their meaning isn’t always completely clear. Without their authors and composers here to clarify any questions we might have, it’s left to us (and the rest of the internet) to figure them out.
One of the more controversial Christmas carols is from the 15th century. And why is it so controversial?
Because of the word “merry.”
In “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” there was a fuss raised about whether merry was actually originally intended to mean mighty.
And because “merry” might actually mean “mighty”
The misreading points to the use of merry in “Merry England,” “Robin Hood’s Merry Men” and “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry” as instances where “mighty” could potentially be swapped in.
Fortunately, good old Snopes puts a rest to this by confirming that sometimes merry just means merry, citing the Oxford English Dictionary, and ending it quite definitively that “merry is not, and never has been, related to the word "mighty" either in origin or usage.”
The other less controversial debate about the carol? Where the comma actually goes in the title!
The Carol That Was Composed At The Last Minute
Who among us hasn’t scrambled last-minute to meet a deadline? While we’ve done it for term papers and Powerpoint presentations, I’m willing to bet not many of us have pulled an overnighter to write the music for a Christmas carol that’s still popular 150 years later.
Yet that’s just what happened in Philadelphia in 1868.
In preparation for a Sunday service just after Christmas, the organist Lewis H. Redner received Philips Brooks’ now-iconic Christmas Carol. The Friday before the service, Brooks asked Redner how the music was coming.
Redner replied that he hadn’t started working on it - and ultimately didn’t start working on it until late Saturday evening, when he got part of the tune done.
When did he finalize the harmony? In church that Sunday.
Now, if you’ve ever heard or hummed “O Little Town of Bethlehem” you now have a new standard for what can be achieved when you wait until the last minute to do your work.