Celebrating Christmas in our homes is not just about the garlands and the Christmas Tree. Decorating for the season is not just about the festive accents, the Santa figurines, or the set of candy cane matching candles. A big part of the celebration also lies in the music that we play – while hosting a party, enjoying a family dinner around the table, or even taking some quiet time to ourselves after the guests have left and the kids have gone to bed. It is the non-tangible foundation of our home’s holiday cheer.
Christmas songs are ubiquitous starting right after Thanksgiving. We all know them. We hum them or sing them or whistle them. But these staples of the holiday – those that bring a sense of warmth or tradition or just a fun time into our homes – what exactly do we know about them?
“Deck the Halls”
Originally titled “Deck the Hall” is a traditional Christmas carol. The melody is Welsh, dating back to the sixteenth century, and belongs to a winter carol, “Nos Galan”, while the English lyrics, written by the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant, date to 1862.
“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” (in its original German) was 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 2011. The song has been recorded by many singers across many music genres. The version sung by Bing Crosby in 1935 is the most popular.
“We Wish You a Merry Christmas”
This is a traditional English Christmas carol of unknown origin that is believed to date the 16th century. It was sung by children in Victorian times as they went about performing carols door to door on Christmas Eve, hoping for sweet rewards.
“Angels We Have Heard on High”
This popular carol is actually a hymn to the tune “Gloria” from a traditional French song of unknown origin called Les Anges dans Nos Campagnes, with paraphrased English lyrics by James Chadwick. The song’s subject is the birth of Christ as narrated in the Gospel of Luke.
“Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”
This song, by songwriter Johnny Marks, is based on the 1939 story Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer published by the Montgomery Ward Company. Gene Autry’s recording hit No. 1 on the U.S. charts the week of Christmas 1949.
“Oh, Come All Ye Faithful”
Adeste Fideles, in its original Latin, is attributed to various authors, including John Francis Wade (1711–1786), John Reading (1645–1692), King John IV of Portugal (1604–1656), and anonymous Cistercian monks. The earliest printed version is in a book published by Wade, but the earliest manuscript bears the name of King John IV and is located in the library of the Ducal Palace of Vila Viçosa.
“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”
This Christmas song was written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. The earliest known recorded version of the song was by banjoist Harry Reser and his band on October 24, 1934. It was then sung on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934. This version became an instant hit with orders for 500,000 copies of sheet music and more than 30,000 records sold within 24 hours.
“The Little Drummer Boy”
Unfortunately, it’s not certain who wrote the song, but the “Little Drummer Boy” is believed to have been written by Katherine K. Davis in 1941. The song lyrics are said to be based on an old Czech carol. It was recorded for Decca as “Carol of the Drum” by the Trapp Family Singers in 1951 and credited to Davis. The Little Drummer Boy is one of the most popular Christmas songs in history.
And now we know. So sing, hum, or whistle away! And enjoy the festivities of the holiday!