December 09, 2021 Eric Gawura

What's the Deal with Christmas Carols? Which is the Oldest?

What's the Deal with Christmas Carols? Which is the Oldest?

Turn on your radio the day after Thanksgiving (or even the day after Halloween in some places) and you’ll most likely find stations playing Christmas music 24/7 until the day after Christmas. That’s a full month of holiday songs! What’s interesting about this Yuletide tradition is that radio stations that are devoted through 11 months of the year to playing current pop music happily play music and songs in December recorded as far back as the 1940s and ‘50s. For many of us it just isn’t Christmastime until we hear Bing Crosby singing White Christmas or Gene Autry’s rendition of Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer.

Which got me wondering, what’s the oldest Christmas carol out there? Many, if not most, of the songs played on radio were written in the mid-20th century.

  • Frosty the Snowman (1950),
  • Rudolph (1949),
  • The Christmas Song (1945),
  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1934),
  • Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1943),
  • Jingle Bell Rock (1957),
  • Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (1958),
  • It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (1963),
  • Have a Holly Jolly Christmas (1965),
  • It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (1951),
  • Sleigh Ride (1950),

They’re pretty modern compared to some of the much older, traditional carols.

Some of the best known and most sung traditional carols go back centuries. For example,

  • Away in a Manger (1882),
  • Go Tell it on the Mountain (1865),
  • It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (1849),
  • Jingle Bells (1857),
  • O Little Town of Bethlehem (1867),
  • We Three Kings of Orient Are (1863),
  • Angels We Have Heard on High (1862),
  • The First Noel (1823),
  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (1739),
  • Joy to the World (1719),
  • O Holy Night (1847),
  • and Silent Night, Holy Night (1818).

Some carols are older still, stretching back to the middle ages. Examples include

  • Lo How A Rose E’er Blooming (16th century),
  • Coventry Carol (date unknown; traditional),
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles; 17th century),
  • From Heaven Above to Earth I Come (1539),
  • "O Tannenbaum" ("O Christmas Tree") [18th century].

The oldest known Christmas carols are actually Christmas Hymns. Hymns are more solemn then carols, which are familiar, festive, and simpler. The early Christmas hymns were theological in content and didn’t pay much attention to the human side of the Nativity. The two oldest Christmas hymns date back to the 4th and 5th centuries. They are:

  • Jesus refulsit omnium (Jesus, Light of all the nations), by St. Hilary of Poitiers (368)
  • Corde natus ex Parentis (Of the Father's love begotten), by Prudentius (405), a layman, government official of the Roman Empire, and great Christian poet.

You won’t hear either on the radio, but both are still sung in churches at Christmastime. In fact, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” can be found in Lutheran Service Book (#384). If you’d care to have a listen to these oldest of Christmas songs follow these links:

Jesus refulsit omnium (Jesus, Light of all the nations) ~

This is the English translation by Kevin Hawthorne, PhD :

‘Jesus, devoted redeemer of all nations, has shone forth,

Let the whole family of the faithful celebrate the stories

The shining star, gleaming in the heavens, makes him known at his birth and, going before, has led the Magi to his cradle

Falling down, they adore the tiny baby hidden in rags,

as they bear witness to the true God by bringing a mystical gift.’

Corde natus ex Parentis (Of the Father's love begotten) ~

These show that, no matter what the age, music and singing have always been a rich part of the celebration of Christmas. Christians certainly enjoy some of the popular (and in some cases, silly) songs that are heard on the radio in December, but our true celebration of Christmas isn't about Santa, Rudolph, the presents, decorations, or food. Our celebration of Christmas is focused on the good news that God became one of us in order to save us. The religious, or theological carols that have come down to us through the ages help us to experience and share our joy at such good news. And, of course, there are always Christians out there who are expanding our portfolio of songs to sing, whether they be classical composers like John Rutter or Contemporary Christian artists like Lauren Daigle or Chris Tomlin. Through the ages the songs of Christmas go on!