When we think of traditional Christmas carols such as “Away in a Manger” or “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” we assume they have been with us through the ages. As with many assumptions about history, we’re wrong.
There is no way to prove what the first Christmas song was, but Christmas music has been produced since the fourth century although until St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century, it wasn’t typically used in religious services. England’s Puritan leader, Oliver Cromwell, banned singing Christmas carols during his period as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth from 1653-1658.
The French version of “The Friendly Beasts” about animals surrounding Christ at the nativity traces back to the 12th century, making it one candidate for the oldest Christmas carol that we sing today.
Variations of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” go back to 1650. In 1739, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was published, and many other familiar carols followed soon after.
In fact, most of what the English-speaking world considers as traditional Christmas music is less than 200 years old. A few Christian favorites are much younger. “The Little Drummer Boy” was written in 1941, Frosty the Snowman in 1950, and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” in 1962. Rolf Harris’s Six White Boomers about kangaroos helping Santa bring gifts to Australia was released in 1980. To my shock our family owned and sang from the song book pictured at the left in the photo above.
The truth is, beautiful and memorable or fun and catchy Christmas songs are still being written. If they are good enough, they’ll be cherished and added to the repertoire. There’s no reason someone can’t put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard to write the next popular Christmas song. Do it now, and we’ll all be singing it by next December 25th.
What is your all-time favorite Christmas Carol or song ever? Why? Have a Merry Christmas!