We sing them in churches, chapels, streets and schools every year, wrap presents and decorate our Christmas trees to their accompaniment, and know all the words by heart, but how much do we know about the stories behind our Christmas carols?
Here are just some of their histories, as related in a BBC Songs of Praise poll.
Joy to the World
The most-published carol in North America, it is also perhaps the only one composed by a banker.
The tune is often credited as Antioch by Handel, but while the eagle-eyed may spot apparent quotes from both Lift Up Your Heads and Comfort Ye from the composer’s Messiah, the tune is actually the work of Lowell Mason — a Handel enthusiast.
Away in a Manger
Another carol, another controversy. Published in 1884 as Luther’s Cradle Song, Away in a Manger is not, in fact, the work of Martin Luther — a myth that took more than 50 years to debunk.
Printing the carol initially without a melody, the editors recommended that readers borrow the tune of Home! Sweet Home. But it was a lovely, lilting tune by William James Kirkpatrick, a Pennsylvania schoolmaster who was born in Ireland, that eventually stuck.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
In 1865, the young Episcopalian pastor Phillips Brooks travelled to the Holy Land and was so struck by a view that he wrote the words of this much-loved carol.
While American congregations favour Brooks’s collaborator Lewis Redner’s more dramatic setting, Irish people may be more familiar Ralph Vaughan Williams’ simpler, sweeter tune Forest Green.
O Come, All Ye Faithful
King John IV of Portugal and St Bonaventure are just two of the possible authors, while Thomas Arne, Christoph Willibald Gluck and Handel are just some of the composers linked to this most mysterious of carols. There’s also a subversive sub-plot to a carol whose words took on special significance in England during the Jacobite rebellion, when they became a none-too-subtle plea for the “faithful” of France to invade and restore English Catholicism under Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
There’s no question about the famous composer of this carol. Felix Mendelssohn wrote the rousing tune, though he might have been surprised to find it performed at Christmas. He originally composed it as part of a cantata celebrating the 400th anniversary of the printing press, specifically stipulating that his “soldierlike” melody should never be used for religious text. Fortunately for us, Charles Wesley, brother of Methodist founder John, ignored the edict, giving us this joyful classic.
Legend has it that, just before Christmas 1818, mice chewed through sections of the organ of St Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria. Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber composed a carol for just voices and guitar, and so saved Christmas. Aspects of this story are probably fiction, but the carol became famous for its role in the 1914 Christmas Truce, when soldiers sang it from opposing trenches.
O Holy Night
If this luscious French melody sounds more like an aria than a carol, that’s because it’s the work of Adolphe Adam – a prolific 19th-century opera composer who also wrote the ballet Giselle.
Initially popular in France, the carol fell out of favour after its 1847 premiere, when Adam’s Judaism and poet Placide Cappeau’s socialism worried the Church so much that they banned performances.
We have America to thank for its reputation. In 1855, John Dwight, a Unitarian minister, translated the carol into English, bringing its powerful text and soaring melody to a new audience.