Believe it or not, caroling during Christmas was popular even in the 18th century. In Fact most of the popular carols sung today were written during the 18th century and early 19th century. Here is a list of ten such songs. No, Santa Claus, Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer and winter wonderland is not among them. They were written in the 20th century. Here are ten songs that are covered elsewhere on the Internet and with more explanation about how they were written, by whom and why. Please enjoy and Merry Christmas to all of you.
1. “Hark the herald angels sing”- Christmas Carol was written by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley founder of the Methodist church, in 1739. A sombre man, he requested slow and solemn music for his lyrics and thus “Hark the herald angels sing” was sung to a different tune initially. Over a hundred years later Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) composed a cantata in 1840 to commemorate Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. English musician William H. Cummings adapted Mendelssohn’s music to fit the lyrics of “Hark the herald angels sing” already written by Wesley.
2. "O Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas Tree)"- "O Tannenbaum" ("O Christmas Tree") is a German Christmas song. Based on a traditional folk song, it became associated with the Christmas tree by the early 20th century and sung as a Christmas carol. The modern lyrics were written in 1824 by the Leipzig organist, teacher and composer Ernst Anschütz. A Tannenbaum is a fir tree. The lyrics do not actually refer to Christmas, or describe a decorated Christmas tree. Instead, they refer to the fir's evergreen qualities as a symbol of constancy and faithfulness.
3. "Silent Night" (German: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) is a popular Christmas carol, composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. It was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in March 2011. The song has been recorded by a large number of singers from every music genre.
4. "Joy To The World"- The words are by English hymn writer Isaac Watts, based on Psalm 98 in the Bible. The song was first published in 1719 in Watts' collection; The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship. Watts wrote the words of "Joy to the World" as a hymn glorifying Christ's triumphant return at the end of the age, rather than a song celebrating His first coming. Only the second half of Watts' lyrics are still used today.
5. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" was first published in 1833 when it appeared in "Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern," a collection of seasonal carols gathered by William B. Sandys. The lyrics of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen are traditional olde English and are reputed to date back to the 15th century although the author is unknown. It is believed that this particular carol was sung to the gentry by town watchmen who earned additional money during the Christmas season. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen continues to be enjoyed. The lyrics to this simple carol are reputed to be one of the oldest carols.
6. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"- The author and composer of We Wish You a Merry Christmas cannot be traced however it is believed to date back to England in the sixteenth century. The tradition of carollers being given Christmas treats for singing to wealthy members of the community is reflected in this Christmas song - We Wish You a Merry Christmas!
7. "O Come All Ye Faithful"- The text to the Carol O Come All Ye Faithful was originally written in Latin (Adeste Fideles) and was intended to be a hymn, it is attributed to John Wade, an Englishman. The music to O Come All Ye Faithful was composed by fellow Englishman John Reading in the early 1700s. The tune was first published in a collection known as "Cantus Diversi" in 1751. In 1841 Rev. Frederick Oakley is reputed to have worked on the familiar translation of O Come All Ye Faithful which replaced the older Latin lyrics "Adeste Fideles".
8. The "Christians Awake" salute the happy morn carol was written by John Byron who was born in Broughton, England in 1692 and died in Manchester in 1763. The Carol lyrics of Christians awake salute the happy morn are famous for the comprehensive quotation of the Archangel Gabriel “Behold, I bring good tidings…” John Byron wrote this poem in 1745 for his little daughter Dorothy. On Christmas morning she found the manuscript amongst her presents , the title was originally called 'Christmas Day for Dolly' but was renamed as Christians awake salute the happy morn when music was added. The music to Christians awake was composed by J.Wainwright
9. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is an English Christmas carol that enumerates in the manner of a cumulative song a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas. The song, first published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin. "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 68. The tunes of collected versions vary. The standard tune now associated with it is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin, who first introduced the now familiar prolongation of the verse "five gold rings".
10. "While Shepherds Watched" dates back to 1703. The words for While shepherds watched were written by Nahum Tate, who was the Poet Laureate in the reign of Queen Anne, and Nicholas Brady. Only the Psalms of David were sung in the Anglican Church prior to that time. Tate and Brady were the first to paraphrase the psalms for singing in rhyme which then became distinctive of their work. The familiar melody used for While Shepherds Watched was taken from "Siroe," an opera by George Frederick Handel. On a lighter note children love to parody the words “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” and replacing them with “While Shepherds wash their socks by night!”
Another Look at Christmas in the Eighteenth Century By David DeSimone:
How did people in eighteenth-century Virginia prepare for Christmas? There are many ways to prepare for any holiday, but a good start might be to look seriously at how eighteenth-century people prepared spiritually to celebrate Christmas. (Colonial Williamsburg Article)