Christmas carols are all joyful Christian songs to be yelled at full volume at doors and to hate when they're played in stores in September, right? Wrong. Some of the most famous Christmas carols in the world come with some serious baggage, from musicians fleeing rebellion to coded Catholic meanings, peasant rebels, saints buried in mountains, guitar solos, and child prodigies. A few aren't very holy at all, and emerged as children's games, while others have some pretty deep religious debates at their heart. Either way, once you scratch the surface of the history of a Christmas carol, you go a lot deeper than standing in the snow hollering your heart out.
Many carols are far less old than you might think; the golden age of the English-language Christmas carol was Victorian England, where Queen Victoria, married to the Austrian Albert, introduced things like the Christmas tree to English life. That's why Dickens could write A Christmas Carol, in which he quotes several famous ones, and be completely understood. America has produced several famous ones in a comparatively short time. Some, however, are centuries old, and were probably once incredibly different.
So when you're breaking out the hymn books to belt out a favorite Christmas carol, take a minute to remember where it came from. Chances are strong that there will be at least one battle for ownership, minor religious scandal or other controversy embedded in its history. Ding dong merrily on high?
1. "Away In A Manger"
"Away In A Manger" has a particularly peculiar lineage because it was once thought to have a much holier origin than it actually does. It was originally believed to be written by Martin Luther — yes, that Martin Luther, the dude who kick-started the Reformation by producing a series of criticisms of the Catholic Church. "Away In A Manger" was known for several centuries as "Luther's Cradle Hymn," in the (mistaken) belief that Luther had written the text for his own kids and it had been passed down and translated.
Unfortunately, the real origin of the song is less interesting: it first appeared in an American carol book in the 1880s, though it may have been sung before then.
The verse "no crying he makes" has also come in for some controversy because it might be referencing a particular obscure part of Christian doctrine: that the baby Jesus didn't cry when he was born, and that therefore he couldn't have been "fully" human.
2. "Silent Night"
Learners of German will often be taught this one in their classes, because it's based on one of the most famous German carols of them all: "Stille Nacht". That carol was created by the Austrian priest Joseph Mohr in 1816, and here's a fun fact: it was meant to be accompanied by the guitar.
The original bit of paper has been lost, and the text itself wasn't set until two years later, but in a real turn-up for Christmas history, a manuscript was discovered in 1995 that turned out to be in Mohr's original handwriting. It's one of the only carols in the world where we can see the author's drafts of the final piece. A Christmas miracle, indeed.
3. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen"
"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is one of the most mis-"pronounced" songs in the world. Most people sing it as "God rest ye, merry gentlemen," but the original version, printed for the first time in 1760 in London but likely sung for centuries beforehand, actually uses "God rest ye merry, gentlemen," because that was standard English at the time. Hey, commas matter.
Carol researcher Ace Collins also explains that "God Rest Ye Merry" was one of the first "happy" carols, created by commoners in response to the dour, serious, Latin songs of the church in the 1600s. It's actually a peasant rebellion against that super-seriousness, and was probably (shock and horror) also danced to.
4. "Good King Wenceslas"
"Good King Wenceslas" gets a bunch of stuff backwards. For one, Wenceslas wasn't a king at all, and for another, the music for this carol is actually from a spring song of thanks, instead of one celebrating the depths of winter. It's actually a pretty confusing song.
Wenceslas was a real person: a Christian martyr and duke of Bohemia who lived and died in the 10th century in Bohemia. His death came about because of his brother, the impressively named Boleslav The Cruel, who really should feature in the carol if you ask me. Wenceslas was murdered on his way to church, and has since been canonized; he actually features as the equivalent of King Arthur for the Czech Republic, with a legend insisting that he and an army will awake from their burial-place under mountains and fight off the country's deadliest enemies.
5. "Twelve Days Of Christmas"
"The Twelve Days Of Christmas" isn't actually a carol at all. Sorry. It was actually invented as a counting and memory game. In its original form, each person had to recite a verse as it accumulated more and more "gifts," and the person who forgot had to perform some kind of penance.
It's also been the subject of a serious intellectual fight over whether it was actually made as a way for small children to remember parts of their catechism, as a bird-watching guide, a reference to each month of the calendar year, or as some other coded reference to parts of faith or life. It seems, however, that most evidence points to it just being a fun song.
6. "O Come All Ye Faithful"
This is one of those carols with a very twisted past. It was originally written in Latin as "Adeste Fideles," and when it suddenly appeared out of obscurity when it was translated by an Englishman, Frederick Oakley, in the 1850s, people were seriously confused as to where the original came from.
Potential authors came from all over the place. Contenders included Handel, Gluck, Saint Bonaventura, and King John IV of Portugal. (Well, you can't accuse them of restricting themselves.) It turns out that it was written by a musician, John Francis Wade, in 1751, after he'd fled England for France and was teaching music in exile at the Roman Catholic seminary in Douai. Wade left England because of the Jacobite Rebellion; he was on the losing side, and it's thought that the original Latin song may have been meant to inspire soldiers.
Translated, it's turned into one of the biggest Christmas songs of all time, but you've got to spare a thought for the exiled musician writing for a failed army in a foreign country.
7. "Little Drummer Boy"
The "Little Drummer Boy" song has a very 20th century sort of origin: it was produced by a child prodigy and popularized by a family later immortalized in a Julie Andrews film. The song was written by Katherine Kennicott Davis, a child prodigy and prodigious composer who wrote over 600 pieces of music in her life, though "Little Drummer Boy," written in 1943, is the most famous one.
The song came to public attention when it shot to the top of the charts courtesy of a recording by the Von Trapp Family Singers in 1955. Yes, the ones Fraulein Maria coaches in song while dressing them all as curtains in The Sound Of Music. Sadly, it looks as if Andrews herself has never sung the song, at least not publicly. Shame.