Stories Behind Christmas Carols and Hymns

The original “Christmas carols” were technically pagan songs that were sung at Winter Solstice.

As the Christmas holiday overtook this celebration, Christian songs were formed to replace the pagan ones. Ancient carols were written in Latin, therefore they were not very popular at first.

For a while, the idea of Christmas we becoming less interesting to many people.

It started to pick up again in the 13th century after St. Francis of Assisi re-popularized it through various performances like Nativity plays, which contained songs.

Through time, Christmas songs like these were crooned throughout the world, eventually were sung in the streets to spread cheer and holiday spirit to all.

1) Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All the Way

“One Horse Open Sleigh”, as “Jingle Bells” was originally copyrighted, was written by New England-born James Lord Piermont, who happened to be an uncle of J.P. Morgan.

The song’s hometown has been debated. One possibility is Georgia.

However, in Medford, Massachusetts, a plaque is posted at 19 High Street (where the Simpson Tavern used to be), claiming to be the location where it was written.

One may find it interesting that this carol actually had no connection with Christmas when it was first penned in the fall of 1850.

It was thought to be geared more toward Thanksgiving, and has no actual mention of a Christmas theme, apart from “snow”.

The physical objects that we now refer to as “jingle bells” were not exactly associated with Christmas until much later, after the song became popular for the holiday season throughout the decades.

They were common on sleighs and horse straps at the time.

In fact, original verses of the song were thought to be a bit racy for its time, ruling out a theory that it was written for a children’s church choir.

Later, the song was recorded on an Edison cylinder for the first time in 1889.

Since then, it has become the most recognizable holiday carol and, in 1965, was even the first song to be played in space!

2) The 12 Days of Christmas

The literal “12 Days of Christmas” is thought by some to lead up to Christmas.

In reality, it begins on Christmas Day and runs until January 6, which is the day of the Epiphany (also known as Three King’s Day).

The earliest version of this carol on record is within a children’s book from 1780, titled “Mirth Without Mischief”, which a first edition of was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014 for $23,750.

As with most stories behind Christmas Carols, parts of the song’s origin are a little unclear. However, historians agree that it was first designed as a type of memory game.

Some think it could have come from France, but the version that is well-known today is sure to have been put in place by an English composer, Frederic Austin, in 1909.

He has created the melody for it and updated a few lyrics, including the drawn-out measure of “five golden rings” (or “five gold rings” according to some).  

It has been thought by some that each day’s number is in the representation of a Christian reference (for example 10 lords a-leaping = 10 commandments, etc.).

However, this does not make perfect sense considering they seem to have nothing to do with each other apart from the numbers.

3) Silent Night

While some have tried to attribute this carol to famous composers such as Mozart or Beethoven, the real men behind “Silent Night” were not as famous.

The lyrics for “Silent Night”, or “Stille Nacht”, as it was originally dubbed, were written in 1816 by a priest named Joseph Mohr in the small Austrian town of Mariapfarr.

It was his father’s hometown, and he was assigned to a church there, according to a manuscript written by Mohr that was re-discovered in 1995.

He had asked Franz Xaver Gruber, a schoolmaster, to compose the melody for it.

After completion, it was performed at a church in Oberndorf bei Salzburg, where Mohr had migrated to, for the first time on Christmas Eve in 1818. 

In 1839, it was brought to America by a family of folk singers, the Rainers, when they performed it in New York City.

Legend has it that on Christmas Eve of 1914, a beautiful moment was shared by opposing World War I troops when they all began to sing “Silent Night” as one unit.

Nowadays, Bing Crosby’s rendition of it has become one of the best-selling singles of all time.

4) O Holy Night

“O Holy Night” was first a poem written by a French wine merchant named Placide Cappeau in 1843. It was titled “Minuit, Chrétiens”.

The melody was added by Adolphe Adam a few years later, creating what was then “Cantique de Noel”.

Some may be surprised to know that Cappeau was actually an Atheist, but had been asked to pen a poem for the church by a priest. Adolphe Adam, on the other hand, was Jewish.

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The carol became quite popular in Christmas performances. That is, until church authorities realized that neither of its creators were Christian.

As the church was weaning away from “O Holy Night”, it was translated to English by John Sullivan Dwight in 1855.

Dwight was an abolitionist and related the song to his views on slavery.

When he published it in a magazine, the rest of America took notice and grew to adore the piece’s heartfelt message. This re-popularized the tune.

It is said that on Christmas Eve in 1871, an unarmed French soldier stood toward the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War.

He began to belt out “O Holy Night” as the German as the Germans watched on. In response, they sang a carol of their own. They all had Christmas in peace before continuing fire the next day.

5) White Christmas

“White Christmas” came to be when its writer, Irving Berlin, was assigned to write a song for each major holiday by Paramount Pictures.

Being a Russian Jewish man, he found Christmas to be the most challenging of these.

While he did not celebrate the holiday, Irving did have a certain tradition.

Every Christmas Day, he and his wife would visit the grave of their deceased son, who died at three weeks on December 25, 1928.

Irving wrote many classic ditties, such as “God Bless America” and others. His song, “White Christmas”, was put to use in the movie “Holiday Inn”, starring Bing Crosby.

By 1942, the movie and film had both become huge hits. In 1943, the film gained an Academy Award for Best Original Song. That song was, of course, “White Christmas”.

During the filming of “Holiday Inn”, Pearl Harbor was attacked in Hawaii. When Crosby went to entertain troops, he tried not to perform “White Christmas”, thinking it would make them too homesick.

However, they vehemently insisted to hear it every time. 

According to Guinness, Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” is now the best-selling single in the world.

6) Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for the 1944 film “Meet Me in St. Louis”, starring Judy Garland.

Hugh Martin was an established composer who had written several songs for MGM and Broadway. Initially, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” was not a favorite of his, and he actually had tossed it in the trash!

When Blane heard this, he insisted that the song would be great and told Martin to keep it. Blane added the lyrics, and the song was officially born.

However, Judy Garland asked for revisions, stating the song was entirely too sad the way it was.

After the song was pepped up a bit, Garland was still able to conjure tears by singing it, both as her character (Esther Smith), and when she performed it live for World War II troops.

A few more lyrical revisions were made for Frank Sinatra’s version in 1957.

It should be noted that Hugh Martin later stated that he single-handedly wrote all of the music and lyrics for every song in “Meet Me in St. Louis”, but allowed Blane to have equal credit due to his own naiveté at the time. 

7) I Saw Three Ships

This popular Christmas carol was brought to us by England, possibly Derbyshire. The earliest record of “I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In)” was printed in the 17th century, as well as being published in 1833 by William Sandys.

Stories behind Christmas carols hold some mystery, and this is one of those. Besides the writer is anonymous, the lyrics are questionable.

We hear that the ships mentioned in the song are sailing into Bethlehem, but the nearest body of water is 20 miles away, which is the Dead Sea.

One theory, among many, is that the ships are a metaphor for the camels that carried the three kings (or Wise Men / Magi).

This could be feasible since camels are sometimes cited as the “ships of the desert”. However, the original lyrics are thought to mean the ships are carrying the Magi skulls, which would rule out this theory. 

8) Good King Wenceslas

In 1853, an Englishman named John Mason Neale published “Good King Wenceslas” with the help of Thomas Helmore.

It is thought to be a translation of a poem by Vaclav Alois Avoboda of Czech. Later that year, it was published in the Carols for Christmas-Tide hymnbook.

The melody of this song came from a 13-century Scandanavian song about springtime, which was called “Tempus Adest Floridum”. (That tune was first published in a Finnish collection, “Piae Caniones”, in 1582.)

The song is thought to be based off the life of a Bohemian duke/king, known as Saint Wenceslas I, who died in the year 935, long before the carol came about.

His father was a Christian duke, while his mother may have been a pagan.

After his father’s death, his grandmother Ludmila secretly raised Wenceslas as a Christian from age 12-18, until he was old enough to take his father’s title.

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She even summoned the help of priests that she had smuggled into the home.

Meanwhile, Wenceslas’ mother controlled the land and did not support Christian theories.

It is said that when she found out what her mother-in-law had been hiding, Ludmila was banished and possibly murdered.

After Wenceslas gained the land, he defended it from neighboring regions. Eventually, he banished his mother and her fellow pagans from Bohemia. 

Wenceslas was well-educated and could read and write (an unusual feat for anyone at that time).

He was able to find a proper education system for the area, as well as a law and order system. He quickly became a hero in the eyes of his people.

However, his advancement was short-lived, as he was stabbed and killed by his own brother (Boleslaus) at age 22.

The reason is unclear, but perhaps out of jealousy or by the command of his mother’s paganists.

The two are sometimes referred to as “Wenceslas the Good” and “ Boleslaus the Bad”.

The carol itself maybe homage to Boxing Day (or the Feast of Stephen), as there is no specific mention of a Christmas theme.

Like Christmas, Boxing Day promotes charitable giving and goodness. It is the “second” day of Christmas, taking place on December 26.

9) Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

This jolly tune was written by John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie in 1933, possible in New York City while they were out traveling.

In the fall of 1934, it was given to comedian Eddie Cantor, who sung on his radio show.

While Cantor’s live performance was not recorded, the song became an instant hit. Within 24 hours, 30,000 records of it and 500,000 copies of sheet music were sold!

The first official recording of the carol was sung by Tom Stacks during that same autumn, along with banjoist Harry Reser and his band in the background.

This happened at the height of the Great Depression, and therefore parts of the original radio performance encouraged charity.

It also had an uplifting sound to it, which the country could make good use of at that time.

An updated, more rock-and-roll sound was put on the song by The Crystals in 1963, which inspired future popular renditions by the Jackon 5 and Bruce Springsteen.

Christmas Carols Today

While caroling throughout the neighborhood streets is not as popular as it once was, it is still done by many.

Luckily, we can play our holiday favorites on repeat in today’s electronic world, so feel free to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” at any time of year! 

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Main Points About Christmas Carols and Hymns

  1. Carols are almost as old as a thousand years. However, the first know carols were not Christmas carols.
  2. During some pagan celebrations, people would sing and dance together in joy.
  3. When Christianity became popularized, these carols were then written and sang as Christian songs instead of pagan ones. Some pagan songs were even converted to be sung in a Christian way.
  4. The earliest carol ever recorded was in 1410 and many of the carols were sung in homes rather than in the churches.
  5. Today, carols are either sang from door to door, neighborhood to neighborhood and in a fixed place.


There are many stories to be told about the backgrounds of different Christmas carols and hymns.

The truth, or legends? No one knows for sure, but we do have them to help us remember why we really celebrate Christmas.

Could you imagine a world without them? In Massachusetts, in the 1600s they had to as influential Christians didn’t like the commercialism of Christmas and banned the celebration for 20 years.

Word Cloud for Christmas Carols and Hymns

The following is a collection of the most used terms in this article on Christmas Carols and Hymns. This should help in recalling related terms as used in this article at a later stage for you.

Christmas Carols and Hymns

Last Updated : 24 November, 2023

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14 thoughts on “Stories Behind Christmas Carols and Hymns”

  1. Thank you for sharing! The background stories of these familiar Christmas carols are truly fascinating.

  2. I’m not sure how reliable these historical accounts are, but the information is very interesting.

    • The historical accuracy might be debatable, but the stories behind these carols certainly make for good conversation.

  3. Personally, I find these stories quite entertaining. Who knew jingle bells had such a fascinating background!

  4. A great reminder of how rich and diverse our cultural heritage is. These Christmas carols hold so much history.

  5. Fantastic article! It’s amazing to see the transition of our traditional Christmas carols from their pagan roots to the present.

    • I totally agree with you George, the history of Christmas carols is a wonderful mix of cultures and beliefs.

  6. As always, the history of our cultural traditions never fails to amaze. Thanks for the enlightening article.

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