It will not surprise anyone to realize that most Christmas music has roots in the religious aspects of Christmas. Most of the long standing Christmas hymns that we know today were written specifically to praise the religious celebration of Christmas. Here is a list of the top ten religious Christmas songs in no particular order. Included with each song is a brief history of its origins.
1.The Twelve Days of Christmas-This song may be one of the most surprising additions to this list. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was written in England as one of the “catechism songs” to help young Catholics learn the basics of their faith. It was a coded-message or a memory aid concerning Catholicism since it was illegal at the time to be Catholic. Since the song sounded like rhyming nonsense, young Catholics could sing the song without fear of imprisonment since the authorities would not know that it was a religious song.
2.Silent Night-This very famous song, like “Oh Christmas Tree”, has its own origins from the German tradition where it is well known as “Stille Nacht!” It was first sung in a village church in Oberndorf in Austria about 180 years ago. This is the song most translated with over 147 versions. The words of the song were written by Joseph Mohr in 1816, in Austria. His friend, Franz Gruber, composed the music theme two years after and the first performance is recorded to have happened at St. Nicholas Church.
3.Away in a Manger-The music to this song was written by James R. Murray but the lyrics remain an unknown. The words were found in a Lutheran Sunday school book published in 1885, in Philadelphia. While the song was thought to have German origins from the time of Martin Luther King it has been proven that it does not.
4.The First Noel-This Christmas carol has English descent. An interesting fact is that its original spelling was nowell. Some scholars believe the word to actually stand for the phrase, “Now all is well.” It was written sometime in the 17th century and has been popular for over three centuries. Yet it is unknown who first wrote the words or the music for this carol. It was passed down orally through families and was finally written down in a book of Christmas carols in 1833.
5.God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen-The traditional English hymn, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, was called ‘the most popular of Christmas carols’ by A.H. Bullen. The lyrics and music are simply credited as English Traditional with no known author.
6.It Came Upon a Midnight Clear-This song first started as a poem and Christmas carol written by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Weston, Massachusetts. Records show that it first appeared on December 29, 1849 in the Christian Register in Boston. In 1850 Richard Storrs Willis, a composer who trained under Felix Mendelssohn wrote the melody.
7.Joy to the World-Isaac Watts wrote this unforgettable carol back in 1719. Watts was an ordained Pastor of an Independent congregation. He also wrote many hymns and carols and was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by the University of Edinburgh in 1728. The music to the carol is by George Frederick Handel.
8.O Come all ye Faithful-The Englishman, John Francis Wade, wrote both the words and the music, to the hymn known as Adeste Fideles. The musical score was not published until 1782. The lyrics were first published in 1760. It is definitely of English origin, despite the original Latin verses. The version that we sing today has actually been worked over by several translators.
9.O come, O come, Emmanuel-This song is actually a translation of the Christian Latin text (“Veni, veni, Emmanuel”) done by John Mason Neale in the mid-19th century. It is believed that the traditional sounding music stems from a 15th Century French processional for Franciscan nuns though other experts believe it may have 8th Century Gregorian in its origins. It is known as one of the most solemn Christmas hymns.
10.We Three Kings-“We Three Kings of Orient Are” is a Christmas carol written by Reverend John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857. He wrote both the words and the music as part of a Christmas pageant for the General Theological Seminary in New York City. It first appeared in his book Carols, Hymns and Song in 1863.