Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

A Brief History of Holiday Music: A 3-Part Series

How well do you know your holiday music?

There are certain ubiquitous elements that surround us this time of year. Christmas lights, egg nog, Christmas trees, Santas,...and let's not forget the music.

Probably not.

Music is an integral part of our holiday experience. And it has been around longer than you think.

This article kicks off a three-part series on the history of holiday music. It starts with and overview of the earliest Christmas songs and hymns. Later weeks will cover the "hey day" of Christmas songs, as well as "fun facts" about your favorite holiday music.

The Earliest Christmas Songs

The earliest Christmas songs are thought to originate in the Middle Ages. The 12th century brought us the traditional hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel"...although the music and words we are most familiar with were adapted and translated, respectively, in the mid-1800s. Another early favorite is "The First Noel," which dates back to the 13th century.

The 16th century brought us 3 other traditional songs: "The Twelve Days of Christmas," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and "O Christmas Tree." Next to "Silent Night," "O Christmas Tree" is the second most popular holiday song to originate from Germany.

Another fun fact? The title "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" may not mean what you think. The Old English word "merry" best translates in modern English to "pleasant" or "agreeable," not happy. And "rest" in Old English best translates to "keep." Thus "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" most accurately means "God Keep You, Pleasant Gentlemen."

Christmas in the 1600s

Several carols and hymns we hear and sing today had their origins in the streets and churches of England in the 1600s. A few of note include "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "Here We Come A Caroling." Very little is known about the origins of both. We do know that "Here We Come A Caroling," otherwise known as "The Wassail Song," was a song meant to wish a person good health and good cheer in the New Year.

Music was also being brought to the American colonies from England. The Pilgrims brought with them a certain traditional tune that we now call "What Child Is This?" (those words were added in the 1800s). The name of the tune? "Greensleeves."

Christmas in the 1700s

During the 1700s, Christmas hymns and carols gained popularity, partly due to the publication of song collections. The famous classical comper Handel published several holiday songs that still maintain their popularity including "While Shephards Watched Their Flocks By Night" and (we think) "Joy to the World."

Other traditional Christmas songs that originated from the 1700s include "O Come All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fidelis)," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "Holly and the Ivy," and "Angels We Have Heard on High." England continued to reign as the main producer of Christmas hymns as all but the last hymn mentioned above were composed by an Englishman.

Coming Up

Next week we will cover Christmas songs from the 1800s and 1900s. Stay tuned...


Nobbman, D.V. (2000). Christmas Music Companion Fact Book . Anaheim Hills, CA: Centerstream Publishing.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.