Christmas carols are songs that celebrate the Christmas season and the birth of Jesus Christ. They have been a beloved part of Christmas celebrations for centuries, bringing joy and festive cheer with their melodies and lyrics. But when was the very first Christmas carol written? Determining the oldest Christmas carol is challenging, as carols were originally passed down orally and not documented precisely. However, through historical research, scholars have identified several extremely old carols that may be among the first ever written.
What is a Christmas carol?
A Christmas carol is a song with lyrics that celebrate Christmas, Jesus Christ’s birth, or the Christmas season more broadly. The term “carol” refers to a song that is meant to convey joy and be sung communally. Christmas carols often have repetitive refrains that are easy for groups of people to sing together. The songs may be religious or secular in theme. Many traditional carols focus on the nativity story and praise Jesus as the savior, while others simply describe winter scenes, family gatherings, gift giving, and seasonal cheer.
Originally, Christmas carols were folk songs that were not written down, but rather spread by oral tradition. Later on, composers began writing formal Christmas music for churches and royal courts. Carols evolved over time, incorporating different styles and languages. By the modern era, carols were published, recorded, and became holiday standards. Traditional carols remain a popular part of Christmas festivities around the world.
Earliest Christmas carol candidates
Scholars have traced back the origins of some well-known Christmas carols to medieval or ancient sources. Here are some of the oldest Christmas carols documented:
Jesus Refulsit Omnium
Jesus Refulsit Omnium, Latin for “Jesus, Light of All the Nations,” is thought to be one of the oldestexisting Christmas carols. This hymn’s lyrics were likely written as early as the 4th century by Saint Hilary of Poitiers, a bishop who lived in what is now France. The Latin hymn praises Jesus and greets his birth. It invokes Old Testament prophesies and calls Jesus the “new light” coming into the world. The song was later published in a 15th century book. The Latin hymn is still sometimes performed and recorded today.
Corde natus ex parentis
Corde natus ex parentis (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”) is another Latin Christmas carol from early medieval times. It may date back to the 4th or 5th century AD. The carol focuses on the role of Jesus as savior and redeemer. It uses complex theological imagery and references the Arian heresy, a Christian controversy of the 300s AD. Multiple translations exist, but the original Latin text survives. Variations on the hymn are still sung during Advent and Christmas seasons today.
Quem pastores laudavere
Quem pastores laudavere is a macaronic (mix of languages) early medieval Christmas carol. The first publication dates to 1753 in Germany, but it likely existed hundreds of years earlier. It meshes together Latin and German words and melodies. The Latin title means “Whom Shepherds Praised.” The hymn describes the nativity story and shepherds’ adoration of the newborn Christ child. The unusual macaronic format may represent early medieval efforts to spread Christianity in vernacular languages. This carol shows an intriguing transition between liturgical and folk musical styles.
Angelus ad virginem
Angelus ad virginem (“The Angel to the Virgin”) may date back as early as the 13th century. It recounts the Annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel visits Mary to announce she will give birth to Jesus. The Latin carol corresponds to a story in the Gospel of Luke. The earliest known written form of the hymn comes from a circa 1300 manuscript in England. The melody and words likely existed as an oral folk song long before then. Multiple later translations and versions exist, but the original Latin remains well-known today.
|Carol Name||Earliest Known Date||Significance|
|Jesus Refulsit Omnium||4th century AD||One of the oldest extant Christmas carols, praising Jesus’ birth|
|Corde natus ex parentis||4th or 5th century AD||Ancient Latin carol focusing on Jesus as savior|
|Quem pastores laudavere||Early medieval era||Unique Latin & German macaronic carol|
|Angelus ad virginem||13th century or earlier||Earliest known Annunciation carol|
Other extremely early Christmas music
Beyond medieval carols, some even earlier hymns and chants contain Christmas themes and imagery. These may not be considered true carols, but demonstrate early Christmas music traditions.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
The haunting Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” has mysterious roots. The Latin lyrics date back to at least the 8th century, although the music itself is likely much newer. The original Latin title is “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.” The text possibly has connections to ancient Jewish liturgical poetry and prophecy. This makes it one of the oldest hymns still performed today to explicitly reference Christmas and the coming of Jesus.
Jesus refulsit omnium
As mentioned above, this 4th century Latin Christmas hymn has strong claims to being the oldest extant Christmas carol. However, an even older Latin hymn from circa 200 AD has significant Christmas imagery. The “Hymnus Omnium Martyrum” is not technically about Christmas, but describes Jesus as the “true light” and “splendor of the world”- phrases later incorporated into Christmas tradition. This makes it one of the first clearly Christ-focused hymns in history.
Early Roman chants
In the early Roman Catholic Church, certain low chants were used during Christmastime liturgies. The short chants include “Veni redemptor gentium” (“Savior of the Nations, Come”) from circa 400 AD and “Corde natus ex parentis” (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten”) from the 5th century. These simple chants likely represent the beginnings of formal Christmas musical tradition in the church. They form the basis for later, more complex carols.
The spread of Christmas carols
After emerging in the medieval era, Christmas carols evolved and spread through Europe. Key events in carol history include:
– Caroling becoming associated with Christmas in the 1400-1500s Renaissance era. Carol came to specifically mean a joyful song with a refrain.
– Carols being suppressed during Reformation and Puritan eras due to perceived ties to paganism and drinking songs.
– Revival of carols in 1800s Victorian Britain through composers like William Sandys who made collections of old carols.
– Carols becoming tied to Christmas tree tradition and taking on modern sound after 1840s.
– Carols proliferating worldwide along with Christmas holiday through colonialism and media in the 20th century.
– New popular Christmas songs composed in the 20th-21st century joining traditional carol canon.
Though new carols continue to be written to this day, ancient medieval carols and chants are still sung, showing the timeless appeal of these earliest Christmas songs.
Earliest English-language carols
After emerging in Latin chants, Christmas carols eventually incorporated English lyrics. Some of the very oldest English carols include:
“I Syng of a Maiden”
This 15th century English carol tells the story of the Annunciation and Nativity in a simple medieval verse style. Its earliest written record comes from a circa 1513 manuscript, though it likely existed earlier as an oral folk song. The refrain focuses on Mary joyously praising her infant son Jesus.
“The Boar’s Head Carol”
Originating in medieval England, this carol cheerfully describes the Christmas tradition of roasting a boar’s head for holiday feasts. The earliest published edition dates to 1521, but mentions of the carol date back 150 years earlier. The song remains popular for Christmas celebrations today.
“Good Christian Men, Rejoice”
Also published in 1521, this carol promotes rejoicing and singing in celebration of Christ’s birth. It draws imagery from the Middle Ages, including ringing castle bells and drinking from an ox horn. The lyrics may date back to the 1400s. A reworked version remains a Christmas favorite today.
“The Coventry Carol”
This somber carol originates from a 1591 pageant in Coventry, England. The lullaby-like a capella piece mourns the coming Massacre of the Innocents by King Herod after Jesus’ birth. It gets to the heart of the tragedy in the Nativity story, making it a poignant outlier to joyous carols.
|Carol Name||Earliest Date||Significance|
|“I Syng of a Maiden”||15th century||One of the earliest English carols|
|“The Boar’s Head Carol”||15th century||Describes medieval Christmas feasts|
|“Good Christian Men, Rejoice”||15th century||Promotes rejoicing for Christ’s birth|
|“The Coventry Carol”||1591||Hauntingly mourns Massacre of Innocents|
Christmas carols are a beloved part of the holiday season, spreading cheer and bringing together families and communities. But when did this cherished tradition begin? Though carols were originally passed down orally for centuries, making their origins difficult to pinpoint, historians have identified several medieval Latin chants and hymns that may be the oldest Christmas songs ever written. These ancient carols paved the way for all the joyous carols to come. Caroling remains a highlight of Christmas festivities to this day, with timeless classics that join new popular tunes. No matter which carols you prefer, they all tap into the spirit of the season and connect us to celebrations stretching back many hundreds of years.