The Origins of Christmas Carols


The Origins of Christmas Carols

By Steele Giles

CarolingI’m fairly certain that you’ve all heard the Christmas songs “Good King Wenceslas”, “The 12 Days of Christmas”, “Silent Night”, and “I Saw Three Ships”. Famous tunes one and all (with the exception of “I Saw Three Ships”. I’d never even heard of it before now), but there are some much less famous details about them. These weren’t all originally conceived as a cheerful ditty to be sung by carolers and children. In fact, their histories prove to be quite fascinating.

            Starting with the least well-known (at least in my mind) and the one with the least complicated histories, I Saw Three Ships was composed by minstrels. It began as a carol about three ships taking the skulls of the three wise men to the German cathedral at Cologne, but it soon had lyrics written for a variety of biblical characters going many different places. A favorite was putting Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on the ships to Bethlehem. That’s it. It’s just a rewrite of an older carol.

            “Good King Wenceslas Looked Out, On the Feast of Stephen” can be argued as being one of the most famous song lines ever. It then goes on to tell the tale of Wenceslas distributing food and wood to the peasants in the streets of his capitol. His actual history reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. After his father’s death when he was 12, Wenceslas’ pagan mother took over as a regent until he was 18. A mere 4 years into his rule, Wenceslas was murdered by his jealous brother on the way to church. The tale told in the song is may be an exaggeration, but there is strong evidence to indicate that he was a good king for his short reign.

            Sitting in the public consciousness as a song beyond famous is “Silent Night”. It was originally written for the guitar by an Austrian priest named Fr. Mohr, but it was later re-written for the organ. Legend has it that Fr. Mohr wanted to surprise the parents of the children’s choir by having them sing this song at the Christmas Eve vigil mass, but in the middle of rehearsal their organ broke. He had to teach it to them on the guitar and they learned it so well that it could be sung a capella. The song gained notoriety when it fell into the hands of a few musical families (similar to the Von Trapps of The Sound of Music) and was performed in places like Leipzig and New York.

            Perhaps the most interesting origin story of all belongs to “The 12 Days of Christmas”. Don’t lie. You thought it was the story of a courtship. It was actually written by English Catholics that were being persecuted by the Anglicans between 1558 and 1829. Each of the 12 days stands for a different theological tenet:

Day 1 - represents Jesus on the Cross (partridges represented divinity back in the day).

Day 2 - represents the Old and New Testaments (and peace, obviously).

Day 3 - represents the three cardinal virtues (faith, hope, and love) and the Holy Trinity.

Day 4 - stands for the four Gospels.

Day 5 - the Pentateuch.

Day 6 - the six days of Creation.

Day 7 - covers the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit

Day 8 - represents the Beatitudes.

Day 9 - the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit.

Day 10 - the 10 Commandments.

Day 11 - faithful disciples (excluding Judas Iscariot, of course).

Day 12 - represents the twelve tenets of the Apostle’s Creed.

A handy little mnemonic, wouldn’t you agree?