The tradition of Christmas music goes back to the very beginning. The birth of Jesus was announced with song: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’” (Luke 2:13-14).
As early as AD 129, Christians marked their Nativity celebrations with a song called “Angel’s Hymn.” Though the lyrics and music don't survive, it’s easy to imagine these early Christians intoning the angelic words “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” a tradition we carry on today in the refrain to “Angels We Have Heard on High.”
Origin of the Christmas carol
The carol is a distinct musical form dating to medieval Europe. Carols were liturgical songs written for professional church choirs (often in Latin) but were not originally associated with Christmas. At the same time, Christmas songs circulated among common people as folk music, and had their origins in popular Nativity plays organized by St. Francis of Assisi in 13th-century Italy.
These two traditions — church carols and Christian folk music — merged in the late 18th century to become what we know today as the Christmas carol. One of the earliest compilations of carols was published in 1822 by William Sandys, an English lawyer. Entitled Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, it included familiar favorites like “The first Nowell,” “God rest you merry, gentlemen,” and “Hark the herald Angels sing.”
Nine Lessons and Carols
In the UK, one of the most beloved musical traditions is the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols held on Christmas Eve at King’s College in Cambridge. The service features nine Scripture readings (lessons) that tell the story of Christmas, interspersed with carols and congregational hymns. The opening carol is always “Once in Royal David’s City,” with the first verse sung by a single boy chorister.
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was created and first performed in 1880. Today, BBC Radio broadcasts it live to millions around the world. Learn more about the service and download previous service sheets here.
Christmas music today
In the United States, beginning sometime in November, the airwaves are saturated with songs about Christmas, the holiday season, and winter. Most are not traditional carols, and many are not religious. Their greatest fault, though, is that they start the merriment too early. They drown out the quiet anticipation of Advent and, after being on repeat for weeks, quickly exhaust their delights, leaving little to be discovered and enjoyed through the twelve days of Christmas.
One way to recover Advent and Christmas as distinct holy seasons is through your musical choices. Check out Advent 24, our playlist of 24 songs that reflect the ache and longing of Advent. For Christmas carols and other fun tunes, consider waiting at least until the midpoint of Advent, the Sunday of Joy.