Intersection of Life and Faith

15 Popular Christmas Carols Everyone Should Know

  • Carrie Lowrance Crosswalk Contributor
  • 2018 20 Nov
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15 Popular Christmas Carols Everyone Should Know

What is a Christmas Carol?

Carols have long been a tradition of the Christmas holiday and celebration of the birth of Christ for Christians. A carol is generally defined as a religious folk song or popular hymn, particularly one connected with Christmas. Here we have collected 15 of the most famous and commonly sung Christmas carols for you to sing with family, friends, congregation and more.

History of Christmas Carols

Carols, or the practice of singing in celebration, goes back thousands of years for mankind. In fact, according to whychristmas.com, “Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas Carols. They were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced round stone circles. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, usually taking place around 22nd December. The word Carol actually means dance or a song of praise and joy! Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived.”

Christmas carols have become a common way to celebrate the birth of Christ and remember the nativity story of Jesus in Bethlehem. It is a powerful way to join with family and friends in the festivity of Christmas. Discover 15 of the most popular Christmas carols everyone should know below! 

15 Christmas Carols to Rejoice in the Birth of Christ!

We are starting to get ready to go into one of my favorite seasons, Christmas. I love everything about this season. I love to celebrate Jesus, I like to bake and also, I love the music. To me, it just brings so much cheer and peace. It’s the perfect antidote to the busyness of the season. It also keeps the reason for the season in focus, our savior Jesus Christ. Here is a list of popular Christmas carols everyone should know.

1. Silent Night

Josef More was the lyricist, and Franz Gruber was the composer of this classic. In 1818, a traveling group of actors was performing in towns across the Austrian Alps. Unfortunately, when they arrived at the village of Oberndorf, the organ at the church where they were to act was not working correctly. They wound up having to present their Christmas drama in a private home.

The play caused assistant pastor, Josef More to be in a reflective mood so that night he took a long way home. He wound up standing on a hill that overlooked the village. While meditating on the play he had just seen, he remembered a poem he had written about the night when the angels announced Jesus’ birth. Thinking this would make a great song for his congregation, he asked Franz Gruber to come up with music for the poem. That night, they sang the new song accompanied by Gruber’s guitar.


 

2. Mary, Did You Know?

This song was written by Mark Lowry after he was asked to write a play for his church Christmas program. After a simple observation from his mother, all kinds of questions were unleashed about Jesus’s mother. In 1984, Lowry’s dialogue became a play for his church’s Christmas program.

However, it was quickly shaping up to become a song. It took Lowry seven years to track down the perfect notes to go with his lyrics. It wasn’t until he gave the words to gospel songwriter Buddy Greene that the song was solidified. The song was featured on Michael English’s debut album and became an instant hit. Since then, it has been recorded 500 times.

Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you

Listen here. 
 

3. Joy to the World

This song was inspired by Psalm 98, which is about the second coming of Christ. Written by Issac Watts, it was initially meant as a hymn of worship for the second coming of Christ. Hence the words:

Joy to the world!
The Lord has come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The light of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love

Listen here. 
 

4. Oh, Holy Night

Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was known in his small French town more for his poetry than his church attendance. Surprisingly, his parish priest asked him to pen a poem for Christmas Eve mass and Roquemaure gladly obliged. Guided by the gospel of Luke, he imagined what it was like to witness the birth of Jesus. He finished the song while on a trip to the capital. Not musically inclined himself, he turned to his friend Adolphe Charles Adams for help. Being that he was Jewish and harboring different beliefs, it was a little difficult for him to write the music to the words. Nevertheless, he went to work and came up with a song that pleased both the poet and the priest. The song was performed a few weeks later at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

O holy night the stars are brightly shining.
It is the night of our dear Savior's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angels' voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born

Listen here.
 

5. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Charles Wesley originally wrote this song. However, it’s words and tune have not stayed the same. In the original version, the first line reads, “Hark! How all the welkin rings, glory to the King of Kings!” George Whitefield, an English preacher, rewrote the opening line in 1753. He changed it to read, “Hark!the herald angels sing-Glory to the newborn King!” This carol has stayed the same ever since.


 

6. Away in a Manger

It is uncertain who the author of this carol is. The composer, however, is J.E. Clark. It is a favorite carol that is often taught to young children. However, although it’s lyrics are simple, its story is profound to both young and old alike.

Away in a manger
No crib for a bed 
The little Lord Jesus 
Laid down His sweet head

The stars in the sky 
Looked down where He lay 
The little Lord Jesus 
Asleep on the hay

Be near me, Lord Jesus
I ask Thee to stay 
Close by me forever 
And love me I pray.

Listen here.
 

7. O Come All Ye Faithful

This carol was sung in Catholic churches before it was known to Protestants. The song has been translated from its original Latin version into hundreds of other languages. It’s meaning appeals to all generations, young and old. It was written and composed by a layman named John Wade. It was translated into English 100 years later.

O come, all ye faithful
Joyful and triumphant
O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem
Come and behold Him
Born the King of Angels!

O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
O come, let us adore Him
Christ the Lord

Listen here. 
 

8. The First Noel

Very little is known about the origins of this beloved tune. Some think it’s popularity rose in France in the fifteenth century. The Latin meaning of “Noel” is actually “birthday.” This holiday is believed to have been brought to England by wandering travelers. It became a favorite song on Christmas Eve when whole villages gathered together and celebrated. At that time, carols were religious songs meant to be sung outside of the church. The repetition of the word “noel” is the equivalent of us singing “happy birthday” to someone. Hence, singing “happy birthday” to Jesus.

The First Noel, the Angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep
On a cold winter's night that was so deep
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!
Noel, Noel
Noel, Noel

They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the East beyond them far
And to the earth it gave great light
And so it continued both day and night

Listen here.
 

9. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen

This is one of the oldest Christmas carols recorded and is about 700 years old. This carol was used as a way to teach an illiterate public about the Christian sentiments of the holiday season. It was a popular song in early Christmas seasons. It was published in Britain in 1833, and the author of the tune is unknown.

God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan's pow'r
When we were gone astray
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy

In Bethlehem, in Israel
This blessed Babe was born
And laid within a manger
Upon this blessed morn
The which His Mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn
Oh tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
Oh tidings of comfort and joy

Listen here. 
 

10. Angels We Have Heard On High

This song was a traditional French Christmas carol. It originated in the early eighteenth century. It was published in a hymnal for the Diocese of Quebec in 1819. Since then there have been many versions and translations, but all stem from the inspiration from Luke 2:6-20. The carol was first included in Methodist hymnals in 1935 and was later translated to English by James Chadwick. The original text was changed from “him” to “Christ” for whole language reasons. Hence the words:

Come to Bethlehem and see
Him whose birth the angels sing
Come adore on bended knee
Christ the Lord, the newborn King


 

11. O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillip Brooks wrote this song for the Sunday school children in his Philadelphia church. He wrote it following a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1865. It appeared in The Sunday School hymnal in 1871. It is said that Brooks traveled between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on his pilgrimage on Christmas Eve. The hymn is sung to its original tune here in the United States. However, composer Ralph Vaughn Winters paired the text with the British theme Forest Green to be put in the English Hymnal. Both versions showcase the musical tastes of two different countries, worlds apart.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

Listen here.
 

12. Do You Hear What I Hear?

Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne penned “Do You Hear What I Hear?” in 1962 in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis as a cry for peace from a man who had gone through the horrors of war. Noel had experienced these horrors as a soldier. One night he was walking the streets of New York and came across two Moms with their babies in strollers. Both babies were smiling at each other, which immediately lifted his mood. They reminded him of baby lambs. Hence the first line of the song, “Said the night wind to the little lamb....”

Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star
Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite

Said the little lamb to the Shepard boy
Do you hear what I hear
Ringing through the sky Shepard boy
Do you hear what I hear
A song, a song
High above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea
With a voice as big as the sea

Listen here.
 

13. What Child Is This?

William Chatterton Dix had a love of poetry instilled in him by his father. When Dix fell seriously ill, he had a crisis of faith and spent much time in prayer and reading Christian books. After coming through the crises, he was committed as a real man of faith, and many of his poems went on to have Christian themes. “What Child Is This?” was taken from a longer poem called “The Manger Song.” It was published in Britain and soon became a favorite song in the United States as well.

What child is this, who, laid to rest
On Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing
Haste, haste to bring Him laud
The babe, the son of Mary

Listen here.
 

14. The Little Drummer Boy

Although it is not certain who wrote the song, it is believed that Katherine K. Davis wrote it in 1941. However, some reports say that Henry Onorati and Henry Simeone wrote the lyrics. The same goes for the composer of the song. However, the words are rumored to be based on an old Czech carol. However, its message about a little boy who had nothing to offer the Christ child as a gift but to play his drum continues to be a popular and timeless message.

Come they told me
Pa rum
pum pum pum

A new born king to see
Pa rum
pum pum pum

Our finest gifts we bring
Pa rum
pum pum pum

To lay before the king
Pa rum
pum pum pum,
Rum
pum pum pum,
Rum
pum pum pum

Listen here.
 

15. We Three Kings

The author and composer of this carol was John Henry Hopkins. He wrote the carol around 1851, inspired by the journey of the Magi in the book of Matthew. It was first published in Hopkins’s Carols, Hymns, and Songs in 1863. Whether you are out shopping, baking cookies, or wrapping presents, listen to some of these carols. These joyous and peaceful tunes are bound to relax your nerves and bring peace to your heart.


Carrie Lowrance is a writer and author. She has been published on Huffington Post, The Penny Hoarder, Bon Bon Break, etc. She is also the author of two children’s books, Don’t Eat Your Boogers (You’ll Turn Green) and Brock’s Bad Temper (And The Time Machine). You can find out more at her website www.carrielowrance.com.


This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!

What is Christmas? Understanding History, Origin and Traditions
Christmas Eve History and Traditions
When Was Jesus Born? History of December 25th
Where Was Jesus Born? 5 Things to Know about Bethlehem
The Birth of Jesus: Bible Story and Scripture Verses
Why Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh Were Given to Baby Jesus
Christmas Prayers

Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/MKucova




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