Christmas carols and their origin

The stories behind the most popular Christmas hits.

© CongerDesign

»O du fröhliche« :From an orphanage via a Christmas hit to a protest song

Nowadays a hit in every cheerful Christmas congregation – originally a source of Yuletide comfort for 30 orphans. The story of this popular German Christmas carol takes us back to the year 1815, to the orphanage run by Weimar theologist Johannes Daniel Falk. A few years previously, Falk had lost no fewer than four of his seven children to typhoid fever. That same winter, an unknown child knocked on his door in the middle of a violent snowstorm: it had evidently lost both its parents in the war against Napoleon's army of occupation. The good-hearted Falk took the child in – and it was soon followed by many more.

As Christmas drew closer in 1815, Falk wanted to present his orphans with a Christmas carol, and dashed off the verses of »O du fröhliche«. He set the words to the melody of a well-known old fisherman's song from Sicily – so we owe this enduringly popular Christmas tune in part to Italian sailors.

The carol was translated into numerous languages before the 19th century was out, and is one of the Christmas classics in the English-speaking countries with the title »O how joyfully«.

Did you know?

The well-known protest song »We shall overcome« opens with the same tune as »O du fröhliche«. The song was presumably taken to America by immigrants, where it gained a foothold in Afro-American communities. Thus the Christmas carol from an orphanage in  Weimar became the inspiration for one of the best-known civil rights anthems.

»Jingle Bells« :A sleigh ride up to a spaceship

A merry Christmas classic all over the world, the song about the one-horse open sleigh was actually conceived in its 1857 first version as a report on a fiery sleigh ride ending in a crash. Some contemporaries even thought it indecent! Only a few years later James Lord Pierpont’s song began to turn into a Christmas song – the word »Christmas« doesn't even feature in the lyrics.

Did you know?

»Jingle Bells« was the first song ever to be broadcast from outer space. Just before Christmas 1965, Gemini 6 astronauts Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford played a joke on ground control with the message: »We have an object that looks like a satellite, crossing our path from north to south, probably in polar orbit. I can see a command module and eight smaller modules in front of it. The pilot of the command module is dressed in a red suit.« Then they pulled out a mouth organ and a set of bells they had smuggled on board and sent their version of »Jingle Bells« back to Earth.


Tom Stafford und Wally Schirra
Tom Stafford und Wally Schirra © NASA
© Jill Wellington

»O Tannenbaum« :From a sad love ballad to a Christmas hit

What is now a merry Christmas carol was originally a tragic love song. »Your leaves are not only green in summer, but in winter too, when snow doth fall« – an unhappy lover pays tribute thus to the conifer, contrasting the tree with his unfaithful girlfriend. The lyrics were written by Potsdam scholar August Zarnack in 1820 to an old folk tune (»Es lebe hoch, der Zimmermannsgeselle«). Only four years later, his Leipzig colleague Ernst Anschütz pounced on the successful song and turned it into a cheerful Christmas carol for children, retaining the first verse of the original. For about a hundred years, both versions of »O Tannenbaum« were in use, though the original love song remained the more common one for a long time. Only after the First World War did the version as a Christmas carol gain a popularity that has stayed with it to this day.

Did you know?

»O Tannenbaum« has not only been reworked many times in Germany – in other countries, too, it has often been used as a basis for songs in anthem style. In the American civil rights movement, to cite one example, it became established as  »Maryland, my Maryland« – now the official state anthem.

»Ihr Kinderlein kommet« :The instructional podcast of a committed priest

We owe this beloved nativity ballad to an 18th century religion teacher who was highly committed to his calling. The Allgäu parish priest and dedicated teacher Christoph von Schmid wanted to give the children in his parish the chance of a decent education, and this prompted him to write dozens of educational poems and stories to convey the Christmas story to his keen young listeners. Among these was »Ihr Kinderlein kommet« (O come, little children – known in its first version as »Die Kinder bey der Krippe« – The children at the manger). The poem was an instant success, but was only set to music some years later – in several different versions. The version in use today is based on the tune of a springtime song, »Wie reizend, wie wonnig« (How charming, how pleasant).

Did you know?

Unlike »O Tannenbaum« or »Silent night«, »Ihr Kinderlein kommet« was not circulated around the world as a Christmas carol, but the tune made an international career for itself. In Iceland, for example, it is a popular summer song.

© mccartyv
© Ylloh

»Vom Himmel hoch« :Luther's gift to his children

This song is right at the top of the Christmas hit parade alongside »O du fröhliche« und »Silent night«. No wonder – the author was no lesser figure than Martin Luther. The great Reformationist penned the song at Christmas 1534 for his five children, taking the text from the Christmas story as told in the Gospel according to St Luke. And to make sure that everyone would be able to sing along, he chose a well-known tune, from the mistrel song »Ich komm aus fremden Landen her«. However, this is not the setting familiar to us today. A few years later, Luther wrote a new melody for his song, which remains a favourite Christmas piece to this day.

Did you know?

Luther's flock of children were not the only ones to enjoy the song: it continued to spread in the 16th century, found its way into Bach's »Christmas Oratorio«, and exists today in several different translations.

Text: Julika von Werder, last updated: 11.12.2020

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