Despite the myriad new Christmas pop songs that seem to multiply each year, there are a few timeless classics that always strike a chord. Here, six Christmas carols that can fill even Ebenezer Scrooge with a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
While the tune is instantly recognizable, few people know that Charles Wesley — who penned the lyrics in 1739 — had originally arranged for the accompanying music to be slow and solemn. It wasn’t for another century that Felix Mendelssohn and William H. Cummings — who used the hymn to commemorate Johann Gutenberg's invention of the printing press — composed the joyful cantata we recognize today.
This popular Christmas carol, which tells the story of the night of Christ’s birth, was composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. The song was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011 for it’s importance and resilience through many generations.
Carol of the Bells
It might be the most challenging Christmas tune to sing, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. Carol of the Bells was based on the Ukrainian folk chant "Shchedryk," sung during the New Year, which, in pre-Christian Ukraine, was celebrated in April with the coming of spring. With the introduction of Christianity to Ukraine, the celebration of the New Year was moved to January — and the song moved with it.
Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” for the wartime musical film Holiday Inn (1942) starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. But the song itself stole the show and inspired a film of the same name starring Crosby in 1954. According to the Guinness World Records, Bing Crosby’s rendition is the best-selling single of all time, with estimated sales in excess of 100 million copies worldwide. The song’s nostalgic lyrics, which describe an old-fashioned Christmas with comforting images of home, resonated with listeners during World War II and is still associated with that era.
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O Holy Night
The music to “O Holy Night” was composed to fit the French poem "Minuit, chrétiens" (Midnight, Christians). On December 24, 1906, Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor, broadcast the first AM radio program, which started with a phonograph record of Handel's aria "Ombra mai fu" followed by Fessenden playing "O Holy Night" on the violin and singing the final verse — making the carol the second piece of music ever broadcast on radio.
Joy to the World
The lyrics to “Joy to the World” are based on the second half of Psalm 98 in the Bible, glorifying Christ's triumphant return at the end of the age, rather than a song celebrating his first coming (as most other Christmas songs do). As of the late 20th century, "Joy to the World" was the most-published Christmas hymn in North America, and it’s been covered by notable divas, including The Supremes, Mariah Carey, Natalie Cole, and Whitney Houston.