Christmas carols set the mood for the holiday season. Whether quiet, classic, and contemplative or cheerful and modern, they're the soundtrack for many a get-together, holiday party, or feast.
Traditional carols often tell the Christian story of the Nativity and were written one or more centuries ago. These carols are often used in religious Christmas services, plays, and holiday cantatas.
This song is a beloved traditional carol that tells the story of Jesus's birth. It was composed in Austria by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818, with lyrics by Joseph Mohr.
Away in a Manger
Away in a Manger is a sweet carol which tells of baby Jesus's experience in the stable. Its origin has been debated quite a bit, with the lyrics originally attributed to Christian reformer Martin Luther.
However, it's actually an American song, written in the late 1800s. It's likely that it was originally text for a children's play that was eventually set to music and given lyrics.
Good King Wenceslas
Good King Wenceslas follows a good king trying to help those less fortunate on the Feast of Stephen (which is December 26th). It was written in 1853 by English hymnist John Mason Neale. The lyrics are actually set to the music of an Easter song that was well-known at the time, Eastertime Has Come.
What Child Is This?
This popular traditional carol shares the same tune as the popular English folk song, Greensleeves, and tells the story of Christ's birth and why Christians believe He came to Earth. It was written by William Chatteron Dix in 1871, and though it was very popular in Britain, it's even more popular in the U.S.
Angels We Have Heard on High
Telling the Nativity story from the viewpoint of shepherds who were visited by a chorus of angels announcing the birth of Christ, Angels We Have Heard on High is set to the tune of the well-known hymn Gloria. It was originally a French song, titled Les Anges dans nos campagnes (which translates to "Angels in the Countryside"). It was given an English paraphrasing by James Chadwick of England in 1862.
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing is a beloved carol about the angels celebrating the birth of Jesus. It's an English carol that was first published in 1739. Charles Wesley and George Whitefield (two of the founders of Methodism) contributed to the lyrics, and the music was adapted from a song by composer Felix Mendelssohn.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
This peaceful carol reflects a sense of calm felt in the small town of Bethlehem before the birth of Christ. The lyrics were written in 1868 by Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks in Philadelphia.
Another interesting thing about this song is that the music is very different depending on which side of the Atlantic you happen to be on. In the U.S., it set to the tune of St. Louis by Lewis Redner, and in Britain and Ireland, it's set to the tune Forest Green.
The First Noel
The First Noel is another telling of the Nativity story, and carol focuses on the journey of three wise men to the stable where Jesus was born. It was written in 1823 and seems to be of Cornish origin, published in carol and hymn books at the time.
Joy to the World
Joy to the World is a song about the birth of Jesus with a celebratory feel. The lyrics are by English writer Isaac Watts, and he based them on Psalms 98, parts of Psalm 96, and Genesis 3:17. Published in 1719, it's one of the oldest known Christmas carols that are still popular today.
We Three Kings
The lyrics to this Christmas carol tell of the Christmas star that guided three wise men to the baby Jesus. It's an American carol written by John Henry Hopkins Jr. in 1857.
O, Holy Night
Voted the UK's favorite Christmas tune, O, Holy Night tells the Nativity story through powerful lyrics and a strong melody. It was originally based on a French poem by poet Placide Cappeau in 1843 and later set to music in 1847. The English translation is by John Sullivan Dwight and was published in 1855.
Deck the Halls
This is a lively song about enjoying the festive gatherings of the holiday. It's one of the few traditional carols not based on the Nativity. The lyrics were written by Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant, and set to a popular Welsh melody, in 1862.
Jingle Bells is a traditional carol that celebrates the winter season and romantic love. It's an American carol, written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
This fun song is challenging to sing due its length and tongue twisting lyrics, this song tells of outrageous gifts received over the 12-day period before Christmas. The song has an interesting history based on myth and symbolism. Historians haven't quite pinned down its exact date of origin, but it's likely sometime before 1800.
Although sometimes referred to as Christmas songs, the following popular tunes are modern day carols by definition. Many of these songs were made famous by some of history's most notable crooners such as Elvis Presley, Bing Crosby, Gene Autry, and Frank Sinatra.
This is a melancholy song that tells of the pain of being separated from a loved one during the Christmas season. It was written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson and first recorded by Doye O'Dell in 1948, though there are several popular recordings of the song, most notably by Elvis Presley.
The words to this song represent small town living at Christmas time during the mid-20th century. It was first recorded by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards in 1950.
Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer
This song brought Rudolph, a beloved Christmas icon, to generations of children and tells of his rise from a mocked reindeer to Santa's favorite. The song was made famous by Gene Autry in 1964, though the story of Rudolph began in the late 1930s.
The Christmas Song
Well-known for being performed by Nat King Cole, this holiday tune reminisces about popular Christmas traditions such as roasting chestnuts, children searching the sky for Santa, and carols being sung in front of a roaring fire. It was written in 1945 by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells.
Christmastime Is Here
Known for being the much loved theme to the animated Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, which first aired in 1964, this song is a modern favorite for its lyrics that celebrate popular Christmas traditions such as sleigh rides, caroling, and fireside memories.
This beloved Christmas carol was first heard throughout America when Bing Crosby sang it in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. The song quickly became a holiday classic for its ability to invoke the Christmas spirit.
Here Comes Santa Claus
This song perfectly tells of the almost unbearable anticipation a child experiences while going through their Christmas Eve routine and waiting for Santa. It was written and performed by Gene Autry and composed by Oakley Haldeman. It was recorded in 1947 and reached the top of the country music charts that year.
Up on the Housetop
The lyrics to this popular carol were written by Benjamin Hanby in 1864. The song shares the story of Santa's Christmas Eve arrival, from the eight reindeer landing on the roof to the filling of stockings.
This carol by John Lennon, first performed and recorded in 1971, became an unexpected modern holiday classic. The song's lyrics talk about life without war and reminds listeners to reach out to those less fortunate.
All I Want for Christmas (Is You)
The holiday season would not be complete without hearing Mariah Carey's dulcet tones singing about the one and only thing she wants for Christmas. First recorded in 1994, this continues to be one of the most-played Christmas songs on radio stations, and it even topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2019, an astounding 25 years after it was first released.
Traditional or Modern... or Both!
Whether your tastes lie with classic Christmas carols or more contemporary Christmas favorites, there's no shortage of wonderful music to serve as the soundtrack for your holiday season. Some of these songs are far older than some people realize, and knowing the history behind them makes them even more interesting.