I’d be willing to bet that a big part of what makes Christmas so wonderful is the ritualistic nature of it. It’s very comforting to do the same specific things each December — things that are reliably uplifting and heartwarming, and that will always happen for one month out of the year. The decorations, the traditional food, the special movies we watch and poems we read, and, most importantly, the songs we sing to celebrate the season.
Be they religious or secular, almost everyone knows the words and can sing almost every popular Christmas carol out there. But where do they come from? What’s the story behind them? Here’s a little background on nine popular Christmas songs from throughout history. Bet you didn’t know that in 2001 the average cost of a partridge in a pear tree was $140.
“GOOD KING WENCESLAUS”
Turns out, the story of the Good King is based on a real historical figure — Saint Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia, who was born around the year 907 in what’s now the Czech Republic. According to the legend, Wenceslaus walked barefoot throughout the land, giving alms to the poor. Eventually, beatification was conferred upon him for his great piety and selfless generosity. The melody comes from Scandinavia, and dates back to the 13th century, while the English lyrics that we sing today were written in the mid-19th century and were translated from an older Czech poem.
“GOD REST YE MERRY, GENTLEMEN”
The melody of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” predates the 19th century and is based on a traditional English tune, the origins of which are lost to us now. One of the oldest Christmas carols still sung today, the lyrics of “God Rest Ye” exist in many forms, though nearly all of them begin with the familiar “God rest ye merry, gentlemen / let nothing you dismay.” It is referenced in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” when Scrooge bah-humbugs a caroler away from his door.
“THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS”
This song is probably of English, but possibly of French, origin. The increasingly expensive gifts on the list have no known basis in any known tradition, or hold any symbolic significance, religious or otherwise. Contrary to popular belief, the fourth gift is not “calling birds,” but rather “colly birds,” which is another word for blackbird. PNC Bank, based in Pennsylvania, keeps the “Christmas Price Index” each year, tracking the cumulative price of all the gifts on the list. In 1984, the total cost was $12,623.10; this year, it’s $21,080.10. For more, visit www.pncchristmaspriceindex.com.
Surprisingly, “Jingle Bells” is also a fairly old Christmas song. It was written by James Lord Pierpont in Medford, Mass., and copyrighted under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857. Versions of the song in French and German are more generally about winter fun, and less about Christmas. In a neat little nugget of holiday trivia, “Jingle Bells” was the first song ever broadcast from space, by Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra in 1965.
This lovely Austrian hymn was composed in Oberndorf in 1818, by Franz Xaver Gruber, with lyrics by the Catholic priest Josef Mohr. The song was supposedly written with the intention of being accompanied by guitar, as the church’s organ was broken during Christmas of that year. It remains one of the most popular of all time and has been translated into virtually every language on Earth.
“CHRISTMAS (BABY PLEASE COME HOME)”
Though U2’s version may actually be the most popular recording of this song, it’s still Darlene Love’s original that is the best. Written by Phil Spector in 1963, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” was supposed to be sung by Spector’s wife at the time, Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes, but Love was brought in at the last minute. It became a huge hit for the singer, who has performed the song on “The Late Show With David Letterman” on the final new episode before Christmas each year since 1986, with the exception of 2007.
“HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS”
Judy Garland sang this song in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” as her character, Esther, tries to cheer up her little sister after she learns that the family will be moving to New York City, and leaving behind their beloved St. Louis. Instant classic — ASCAP announced in 2007 that the Hugh Martin-penned song was the third most-recorded Christmas song of all time. Only the Frank Sinatra version is more popular than the original Garland recording.
“CAROL OF THE BELLS”
“Carol of the Bells” is a choral miniature work originally composed by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych. It was adapted from an ancient pagan Ukrainian New Year’s chant known in Ukrainian as “Shchedryk.” Leontovych’s work dates to 1916, premiering in Kiev. The English-language version we know was written in the 1930s. A popular version of the piece recorded by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra plays on radio stations all over the country. And then there’s always the parody version, “Ding! Fries Are Done.”
“HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING”
The lyrics to this carol were originally sung to a slower, more somber tune. Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, wrote the words in 1739. Over 100 years later, the lyrics were refitted to a cantata written by the great German composer Felix Mendelssohn, resulting in the version we know today.