By the 1820s, the general lack of enthusiasm for keeping Christmas extended to Christmas music as well. In his 1822 compilation of old Christmas songs, Some Ancient Christmas Carols (published in 1822) Davies Gilbert writes, "The Editor is desirous of preserving them [the selected Christmas carols] in their actual forms, however distorted by false grammar or by obscurities, as specimens of times now passed away, and of religious feelings superseded by others of a different cast. He is anxious also to preserve them on account of the delight they afforded him in his childhood, when the festivities of Christmas Eve were anticipated by many days of preparation, and prolonged through several weeks by repetitions and remembrances."
"Specimens of times past away"? Fortunately for poor Mr. Gilbert, the next decades would prove him wrong and usher in a renaissance of Christmas music.
The 1830s through 1870s were the golden age of popular Christmas music, with many of the carols we still sing today dating back to this time. William B. Sandys, a solicitor by trade and an antiquarian in his spare time, published his Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833, including songs and carols culled from as far back as medieval times (many of which Sandys decided to "improve" upon, and others which he combined when finding multiple sources). Carols included in his collection include many our readers would be familiar with today--The First Noel and God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen among them.
These carols gradually made their way into the church service during this time, probably as a side-effect of the Evangelical movement's emotionalizing and personalizing of religious experience. Caroling also began to come back into fashion; it was used as a way to collect funds for church-sponsored charity and so became rather more respectable than in the past! St. Thomas's Day, December 21, was a traditional day for caroling; in elder times it was an almost Halloween-like holiday, when the poor went "corning", or "Thomasing", or "gooding" amongst their better-off neighbors, collecting portions of flour for a Christmas baking. Caroling replaced corning, and donations for the church poor box replaced gifts of flour.
So just in case your past Christmases have been ruined by wondering just where your favorite carol came from, I've compiled a list of carols with brief notes on their origins and approximate dates, from medieval times to the 19th century.
The First Noel, which appeared in Sandys (see above) is thought to have been written in 16th century England.
I Saw Three Ships is also thought to be medieval in origin. It was widely known across England in slightly different versions; the first printed version is from 17th century Derbyshire. Like The Twelve Days of Christmas it's a mnemonic, consisting of multiple repeated elements. Published in Sandys.
God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen is also thought to be medieval in origin. It's quoted in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Published in Sandys.
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing was originally written by Charles Wesley, younger brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It appeared in the younger Wesley's Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1739, and again in Sandys in a modified form. Some time in the 1840s it was re-adapted to a tune by Mendelssohn by English musician William Cummings.
Joy to the World, or at least its lyrics, were written by English writer/composer Isaac Watts in 1719, based on Psalm 98. Composer Lowell Mason set them to the tune we now know in 1839, borrowing heavily from parts of Handel's Messiah.
The Twelve Days of Christmas, or at least its lyrics, date back to the sixteenth century; the music is thought to be French. It was first published in England in 1780.
O Come All Ye Faithful would have been known and sung in our era in its Latin form, Adeste Fidelis. It was written by English hymnist John Francis Wade and published by him in 1751, though he may have borrowed heavily from a 13th century song. The English translation was published in Murray's Hymnal in 1852.
Silent Night is a German carol; its words were written by an Austrian priest in 1816 and set to music (guitar, no less!) by a friend of his in 1818. The first published English translation is from 1871.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas was sung as far back as the 1500s in the West Country of England as a secular Christmas song.
Several other carols also survived from medieval origins, including Here We Go A-Wassailing, The Boar's Head Carol, The Holly and the Ivy, and Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella (an 18th century translation of a medieval French song).
Have I missed any of your favorites? Let me know, and I'll try to track their origins down.