Surprise, all ye faithful! The odd history of Christmas carols

I won’t be carolling with my family this year. We’re distanced, safe and intend to keep it that way. Which means there’s no chance I’ll bore them with trivia this time. Pity. There’s so much to say.

For most Christians in India, carols came from a church hymnal or a Jim Reeves album. Both revered with equal fervour. Not many know that they were originally folk songs — carolling originally meant “to dance in a ring”. Carols were also only sung in homes, until about 150 years ago.


Fa la laing along to Deck The Halls? Try singing the original lyrics and watch everyone turn redder than Rudolph’s nose. The carol started life as a 16th-century Welsh song called Nos Galan. Translated directly, the first line goes something like this: “Oh! How soft my fair one’s bosom, fa la la la la la la la la.” There are references to getting sloshed too: “Fill the mead-cup, drain the barrel, fa la la la la la la la la.” You can blame English songwriter Thomas Oliphant for the family-friendly Christmas version, written in the 1860s.


If you’re planning to belt out Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, the ghosts of the lyricist and musician are probably rolling their eyes. The poem was originally written by preacher Charles Wesley in 1739, and was a bit of a mouthful: Hark how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings. Some 20 years later, another preacher, George Whitefield, updated the words to the version we know now, which irked Wesley, who distanced himself from it.

Meanwhile, in 1850, composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote a song to celebrate 400 years of the printing press, and left instructions to use the tune for a non-religious melody only. No one cared. They found Wesley’s poem a good fit for the music, as do we all.

Jingle Bells, sorry to say, isn’t British, or even originally a carol. The One Horse Open Sleigh was written in Georgia, USA, in the 1850s, and was intended to celebrate Thanksgiving. That explains the distinct lack of any Christmas imagery apart from the snow and sleigh.


Be thankful you’re not gifted the six geese a-laying and twelve drummers drumming from The Twelve Days of Christmas. Why such weird presents from a true love? Turns out that when the Puritans banned Christmas revelry between 1644 and 1660, some Catholics created codes so they could continue to celebrate. “My true love” is God. The partridge is Jesus. Two turtledoves are the Old and New Testaments. Three French hens are the Holy Trinity and so on, all the way to the drummers, a metaphor for the 12 apostles.

Some carols were even born out of the threat of war. Gloria Shayne composed Do You Hear What I Hear? to lyrics written by her then husband, Noël Regney. They created it in October 1962 as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and were opposed to the commercialism of Christmas. Whitney Houston has covered it, as have Bob Dylan, Alicia Keys, Pentatonix and scores of others. It’s still stubbornly low-key, just as they wanted.

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