Kimberly Sena Moore Ph.D.

Your Musical Self

A Brief History of Holiday Music: The 1800s and the Re-Invention of Christmas

Christmas music re-imagined and re-popularized

Posted Dec 06, 2011

This is the second article in a 3-part series titled "A Brief History of Holiday Music." Read the first part, covering the earliest music through the 1700s, here.

When Prince Albert married the English Queen Victoria in 1840, the face of Christmas was changed forever. For centuries, several religious denominations and movements, such as the Protestant Reformation and Puritanism, had condemned and sometimes even abolished Christmas celebrations as pagan traditions.

But when Prince Albert married Queen Victoria, he brought with him German customs. One such custom was the celebration of Yule, or Yuletide, a winter festival that emerged from an ancient German pagan religious festival. The customs and pageantry of Yuletide were mixed with the English celebration of Christmas. Christmas was now re-invented and included elements such as the evergreen tree, greenery, exchanging gifts, caroling, and Christmas cards.

This re-popularization of Christmas was also reflected in the music.

New Christmas hymns

The middle 30 years of the 1800s, from about 1838-1868, brought us our first surge of new Christmas tunes, including:

  • "Silent Night" (1818-63)
  • "Joy to the World" (1839)
  • "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" (1840)
  • "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" (1846-50)
  • "O Holy Night" (1847-55)
  • "Good Kind Wenceslas" (1853)
  • "Angels We Have Heard in High" (1855)
  • "We Three Kings of Orient Are" (1857)
  • "Jingle Bells" (1850-59)
  • "Up on the Housetop" (circa 1860)
  • "What Child is This?" (1865-71)
  • "O Little Town of Bethlehem" (1868)
  • "Away in a Manger: (1885-87)
  • "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" (late 1800s)

Although some tunes written during this time remain in obscurity (such as "Gather Around the Christmas Tree," composed by the same person who gave us "We Three Kings of Orient Are"), many are commonly known and sung to this day.

Re-imagined Christmas hymns

The mid- to late-1800s were a time not only when new Christmas hymns were written, but when hymns were translated into English (such as "Adeste Fideles" in 1841) and lyrics were added to older tunes (such as the 2nd and 3rd stanzas of "O Christmas Tree" in 1824).

In 1871 alone, three tunes that were hundreds of centuries old were re-arranged for and re-introducted to the public: "The First Noel" (13th century), "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (16th century), and "Here We Come A-caroling" (17th century).

Why so many in a single year? 1871 was the year that Sir John Stainer published the collection "Christmas Carols New & Old," which included many of his own arrangements.

Fun Facts and Interesting Tidbits

Here are some interesting facts about some of your favorite Christmas songs:

Did you know...that "Jingle Bells," one of the few songs in the list above written by an American composer, was originally intended as a Thanksgiving song?

Did you know...that the well-known classical composer G.F. Handel is often credited for composing "Joy to the World," but credit should be given to the founder of music education in America, Lowell Mason? The confusion lies in that Mason wrote "From George Frederick Handel" in the score because he used some phrases from Handel's "Messiah" in the music.

Did you know...that, along with "Angels We Have Heard On High," "O Holy Night" is one of the most well-known French Christmas songs? To this day, it is one of the most popular and beloved songs for singing as a solo during the holiday season.

Did you know...that the music to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" was composed by the famous romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn?

Did you know...that Father Joseph Mohr was inspired to write the words to "Stille Nacht" in 1816 after being called to travel through the snow to bless the newly born baby of a poor parishioner? Two year later, the words were set to music by Franz Xaver Gruber. The English translation to what we now call "Silent Night"" was done in 1863.

Coming Up

Next week we will move away from the more traditional, religious Christmas hymns and move towards the second surge of newly-composed holiday music. Stay tuned...


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

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