It is not surprising to realize that most Christmas music has deep historical roots. Many of our best known Christmas carols have roots that travel back over the centuries. Whether they began as poems or had their beginnings in a religious setting, each has a fascinating story of how they came to be part of our popular and modern day Christmas celebration. Here is list of the top ten historic Christmas songs in no particular order with a brief historical note as to the songs’ origins.
1.”The First Noel” has been a popular carol for over 300 years, and is considered to be the oldest common carol in the English language. After having traveled through word of mouth for many years, “The First Noel” was finally written down with the tune correct, and printed for the first time in a collection of Christmas carols that was published in 1833.
2.”Jingle Bells” This could be the best known Christmas song ever. This very famous carol was written by James Pierpont in 1822 and was originally entitled “One Horse Open Sleigh”. When Pierpont wrote Jingle Bells, he lived with his young wife, Eliza Purse, with whom he had six or seven children, and his father. One day James Pierpont went to the home of Mrs. Otis Waterman, who owned the only piano in town and played the carol. After he played the piece for her, Mrs. Waterman’s reply was that it was a very merry little jingle, and he should have a lot of success with it. That is where James got the idea for the song’s name. Jingle Bells was finally published and copyrighted by the year 1857.
3.”Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was written by Charles Wesley, who was the brother of John Wesley founder of the Methodist church, in 1739. Initially the song was sung to a different tune than it is now. Over a hundred years later English musician William H. Cummings adapted Mendelssohn’s music to fit the lyrics of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” already written by Wesley.
4.”I’ll Be Home for Christmas” this lyrical song has become the anthem for those trying to get home to celebrate with family and friends. Written in 1943 by the team of James and Kent Gannon this song became a hit when it was recorded by Bing Crosby in October of that year. When the song hit the music charts it remained there for eleven weeks, peaking at number three. The song touched the tender hearts of families separated during World War II.
5.”O Christmas tree” known in Germany as “O Tannebaum”: this carol is one of the most historic Christmas carols sung today. Based on a German folk song there is no written record of the original writer of either the music or the lyrics.
6.”Silver Bells”-this song was written by the historic music writing team of Ray Evans and Jay Livingston. Written during the feel good age of Christmas music this song joined “I’ll be Home for Christmas” as one of America’s favorites during the 1950s.
7.”Silent Night”-this very old song takes its traditions from a German folk song. While its origins began in an Austrian church about 180 years ago, the words were written like many songs as a poem by German 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.
8.”I heard the Bells on Christmas Day”-one of America’s best known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow contributed to the wealth of carols sung each Christmas season, when he composed the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on December 25th 1864. The carol was originally a poem, “Christmas Bells,” containing seven stanzas. Five of the stanzas were slightly rearranged in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin who gave us the memorable tune. “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” flowed from the experience of Longfellow involving the tragic death of his wife Fanny and the crippling injury of his son Charles from war wounds.
9.”Deck the Halls”-the music to this song goes back to a traditional Welsh tune dating back at least four or five centuries. The lyrics as we know them are not nearly as old; they first appeared in a collection of songs published in 1881.
10.”White Christmas”-this song is perhaps the best known Christmas carol from the 20th century. A famous Irving Berlin song that he wrote in early 1940 while sitting poolside at the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa in Phoenix, Arizona. The original verses poke fun at a well-off resident of Los Angeles who, amid orange and palm trees, longs for traditional Christmas “up north.” Berlin later dropped the verse but kept the now-famous chorus. “White Christmas” was sung by Bing Crosby in the 1942 musical Holiday Inn. In the film, he sings it as a duet with Marjorie Reynolds. The song went on to receive the Academy Award for Best Original Song.