Have you ever wanted to know the history of some of our most beloved carols? Well, we’ve done a little investigating and found some fascinating stories. From ‘Silent night’ to ‘Good King Wenceslas’, we explore the stories and legends behind some of our favourite carols, shedding some new light on these familiar songs.

‘Silent night’

The words of the beloved Christmas carol ‘Silent night’ were originally written by a German priest, Joseph Mohr, in 1816. (The German title is Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!’) The music was composed by an organist named Franz Xaver Gruber, a friend of Mohr’s in Oberndorf, when their organ was out of action and they needed music for a Christmas Eve service. The carol was originally performed with just their two voices and a guitar in 1818.

The carol is perhaps more famous, however, for the part it played in the Christmas truce of World War I in 1914. In his book on the subject, historian Stanley Weintraub recounts that German officer and Berlin Opera singer Walter Kirchhoff sang the carol in both German and English at the front, provoking the exchange of songs, greetings and gifts between enemy soldiers. While the extent of this truce has been debated among experts, the story nevertheless presents us with a striking image of the kind of peace and goodwill that is heralded by the coming of the Christ Child. As Martin Clarke writes, ‘the intimacy and simplicity’ of the carol provided ‘an antidote to the grimness of trench warfare’.

‘O holy night’

‘O holy night’ was composed by Frenchman Adolphe Adam in 1847 and was originally based on a poem by poet Placide Cappeau, Minuit, chrétiens (‘Midnight, Christians’). Cappeau was a wine merchant as well as a poet, and was not considered ‘particularly religious’. Nevertheless, in 1843, he was asked by the parish priest in his hometown of Roquemaure, in the south of France, to write a Christmas poem to celebrate the recent renovation of the church organ, and he happily obliged.

A few years later, Adam, a composer and music critic who wrote mostly operas and ballets, composed the music to accompany Cappeau’s words, releasing this musical version as Cantique de Noël. It is one of Adam’s best-known works, along with the opera Giselle (1841).

Almost a decade later, in 1855, the lyrics of the French carol were translated and adapted from French into English by American music critic, editor and Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight, and it is this version that has become popular in the English-speaking world. Here is the first verse and chorus:

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’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 and glorious morn;

Fall on your knees, Oh hear the angel voices!
O night divine! O night when Christ was born.
O night, O holy night, O night divine.

‘Good King Wenceslas’

The carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’ was written by Anglican hymnwriter John Mason Neale in 1853, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore. The melody, however, is from the 13th century, taken from a medieval hymn in praise of spring, ‘Tempus adest floridum (‘Eastertime has come). The lyrics of Neale’s carol bear no relationship to the words of the original hymn though. Written for St Stephen’s Feast Day (commonly known as Boxing Day), it encouraged Christians to give alms. The final verse reads:

Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

The carol’s main character is the historical figure King Wenceslas (907–935), a short-lived Duke of Bohemia. When he was tragically assassinated by his own brother, Boleslaus the Cruel, he was immediately declared a martyr and a saint. (The anniversary of his death, on 28 September, is still marked in the liturgical calendar as an optional memorial.) His popularity derived from his reputation for generosity and for regularly giving alms to the poor.

Legend has it that when the Czech Republic finds itself in dire trouble, the statue of King Wenceslas will come to life, and he will raise a sleeping army, bringing peace to his homeland by wielding a legendary sword.

‘Angels from the realms of glory’

This carol was written by the Scottish poet James Montgomery, a man formed and inspired by some of the best lyricists in hymnal history, including Charles Wesley. Montgomery was the son of missionaries, who left him in Scotland when they travelled to the West Indies to preach the Gospel, both of them dying there when their son was just 12 years old.

Montgomery went on to become a poet, selling his verse on the streets. Even though he initially drifted from the faith of his childhood, he returned to the Moravian Church when he was older. Writing more than 400 hymns and poems throughout his life, his most famous, ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ was first published in a newspaper, The Sheffield Iris, on Christmas Eve 1816. It was inspired by the account of the angelic appearance in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel.

Angels from the realms of glory
Wing your flight through all the earth
Ye who sang creation's story
Now proclaim Messiah's birth

Gloria
In excelsis deo
Gloria
In excelsis deo

Shepherds, in the fields abiding
Watching o'er your flocks by night
God with man is now residing
Yonder shines the infant light

Gloria
In excelsis deo
Gloria
In excelsis deo

Sages, leave your contemplation
Brighter visions beam afar
Seek the great desire of nations
Ye have seen His natal star

‘God rest you merry, Gentlemen’

This is allegedly one of our earliest English Christmas carols, dating back to the 16th century. No one knows who originally wrote the carol, and it has gone through many changes and interpretations through the years. The original words were:

God rest you merry, Gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this Day.
To save poor souls from Satan’s power,
Which long time had gone astray.
Which brings tidings of comfort and joy.

The history of this carol is really a history of language. Our loss of knowledge about medieval language means that we often misinterpret the meaning of this hymn. Its first line—‘God rest you merry, Gentlemen’—gives the impression that the words are addressed to a group of particularly joyful people. Note, though, that the comma is before ‘Gentleman’. In other words, rather than describing their demeanour, it is encouraging them to be ‘merry’—but not in the way you might think. In 16th-century English, the adjective merry also meant ‘mighty’ or ‘strong’ (as in Robin Hood’s ‘Merry Men’), and rest you meant ‘to keep’. So this carol is saying: May God keep you strong, Gentleman, and do not dismay, because Jesus Christ is born. Our interpretation of merry as ‘joyful’ isn’t incongruent, though. Christmas does bring tidings of comfort and joy, after all!

Cathedral concert: ‘A Christmas Celebration’

Some of these carols—and many more—will be featured at a family concert of modern and traditional Christmas favourites at St Patrick’s Cathedral:

Sunday 18 December, 3–4.30pm
St Patrick’s Cathedral, 1 Cathedral Place, East Melbourne
Tickets: $25 at the door or via trybooking
There is no cost for children 15 years and under.
For any queries, email music@cam.org.au.

Please join us!