Carols & their history

Shruti Saxena

Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh,
Over the fields we go, laughing all the way.
Bells on bob-tails ring, making spirits bright,
What fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song tonight.
Jingle Bells Jingle Bells Jingle all the way,
Oh what fun, it is to ride on a one-horse open sleigh…

Ho Ho Ho, Ho Ho Ho…
Merry Christmas!

The air is again abuzz with sounds of carols. The captivating smells of Christmas festivities have filled the hearts of people with joy and happiness.

Christmas carols have always been an integral part of the Day`s celebration. They were first introduced into church services by St Francis of Assisi in the 12th century. The word `carol` is a derivative of the French word caroller, which means dancing around in a circle. Carol eventually came to mean not only to dance, but included music and lyrics - hence Christmas Caroling. These festive songs express religious joy and are often associated with the Christmas season, though they can be enjoyed at anytime during the year.

It is not clear that when the first carol was written but it is believed that circa 1350 to 1550 was the golden age of English carols. Most of the carols followed the verse-refrain pattern. However, by the 16th century, the popularity of carols faded, and it was by the middle of the 18th century only that they revived their existence. Most of the carols that we sing these days are the ones that were written in during this period.


We wish you a Merry Christmas

We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Good tidings we bring to you and your kin;
Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer
We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some;
We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here.

We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas;
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.


The author and composer of the Carol ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ cannot be traced. It is however believed to date back to England in the sixteenth century.

This song reflects the tradition of carollers being given Christmas treats for singing to wealthy members of the community. But we have witnessed that over the years the fashion for figgy puddings mentioned in ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ has faded.

O little town of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel


Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest, Rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia wrote the words of the carol ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ in 1868, following a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He was inspired by the view of Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine especially at night time hence wrote the lyrics of the same.

His church organist Lewis Redner (1831-1908) wrote the melody to ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ for the Sunday school children’s choir.

While shepherds watched

While shepherds watched
Their flocks by night
All seated on the ground
The angel of the Lord came down
And glory shone around
And glory shone around

“Fear not,” he said,
For mighty dread
Had seized their troubled minds
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind,
To you and all mankind.”

“To you in David’s
Town this day
Is born of David’s line
The Savior who is Christ the Lord
And this shall be the sign
And this shall be the sign.”

“The heavenly Babe
You there shall find
To human view displayed
And meanly wrapped
In swathing bands
And in a manger laid
And in a manger laid.”

Thus spake the seraph,
And forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God, who thus
Addressed their joyful song
Addressed their joyful song

“All glory be to
God on high
And to the earth be peace;
Goodwill henceforth
From heaven to men
Begin and never cease
Begin and never cease!”


The words of the carol ‘While shepherds watched’ were written by Irish hymnist, lyricist Nahum Tate, who was also the Poet Laureate in the reign of Queen Anne, and Nicholas Brady. The carol describes the Annunciation to the Shepherds. The exact date of Tate’s composition is not known, but the words appeared in Tate and Nicholas Brady’s 1700 supplement to their New Version of the Psalms of David of 1696.

The familiar melody used for ‘While shepherds watched’ was taken from “Siroe,” an opera by George Frederick Handel.

Silent Night

Silent night, holy night
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia
Christ the Saviour is born
Christ the Saviour is born

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth


Silent Night is actually an Austrian hymn titled ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’. The lyrics were a poem composed by a young priest named Joseph Mohr in 1816.

Bill Egan, who is a Christmas historian writes:

About 180 years ago, the carol ‘Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht’ was heard for the first time in a village church in Oberndorf, Austria. The congregation at that Midnight Mass in St. Nicholas Church listened as the voices of the assistant pastor, Fr. Joseph Mohr, and the choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber, rang through the church to the accompaniment of Fr. Mohr’s guitar. On each of the six verses, the choir repeated the last two lines in four-part harmony. The lyrics actually talk about the birth of Jesus Christ in a poetic manner, imagining perhaps a lullaby his mother would have sung to him ("Sleep in heavenly peace").

O Come All ye Faithful

O Come All Ye Faithful
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

O Sing, choirs of angels,
Sing in exultation,
Sing all that hear in heaven God`s holy word.
Give to our Father glory in the Highest;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

All Hail! Lord, we greet Thee,
Born this happy morning,
O Jesus! for evermore be Thy name adored.
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.


The Carol ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ was originally written in Latin and was intended to be a hymn. The music of this carol was composed by Englishman John Reading in the early 1700s. The tune was first published in a collection known as ‘Cantus Diversi’ in 1751.

It was once commonly believed that ‘Oh Come, All Ye Faithful’ was written in Latin by St. Bonaventure. However, the legend was debunked by Dom John Stephan, a priest, who researched the hymn. He discovered that the original manuscript was written by John Francis Wade. He was a Roman Catholic from England. However, because of the Jacobite rebellion he fled England with other Catholics. To support himself, Wade taught music and worked as a copyist of musical scores.

In 1743, Wade introduced the world to a Latin Christmas carol that began ‘Adeste Fideles, Laeti triumphante.’ Until the 1900’s, historians believed that Wade had found an ancient hymn that had sunk into oblivion. As a result, the legend formed around the hymn. However, John Wade’s signature can be found on all seven original hand-copied manuscripts.

Eventually, Rev. Frederick Oakeley, an Anglican minister discovered the carol. The song inspired him and he attempted to translate it. His first translation read ‘Ye Faithful, Approach Ye.’ Oakeley attempted a second translation. His new translation was more direct and read ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful, Joyful and Triumphant!’ Soon, Adestes Fideles became a popular carol in both Catholic and Protestant religious circles.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Christ by highest heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"


‘Hark the herald angels sing’ is a Christmas hymn or carol written by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley founder of the Methodist church, in 1739. It first appeared in hymns and sacred poems in 1739, under the topic of "Hymn for Christmas-Day". 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.

Little Drummer Boy

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.

Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.


The song ‘Little Drummer Boy’ was written by Katherine K. Davis, Henry Onorati and Harry Simeone in 1958 based on an old Czech carol. It was originally titled ‘Carol of the Drums’ because of the repeating line ‘pa rum pum pum pum’. The version that made the song popular was the one sung and recorded by the Harry Simeone Chorale.

The lyrics of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ tell the legendary story of a poor young boy, who unable to afford a gift for the infant Jesus, plays his drum for the newborn with the Virgin Mother Mary’s approval.

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