What’s the World’s Oldest Christmas Carol?.

When we think of traditional Christmas carols
such as “Away In a Manger” or “It Came Upon a
Midnight Clear,” we generally assume these
religious standards have been handed down
through the ages. As with so many assumptions
about history, we’re wrong. Most of what the English-speaking world
regards as traditional Christmas music is actually
less than 200 years old. A few of the Christian
standards, like 1962’s “Do You Hear What I
Hear?”, were even written after the rock era had
begun. So what was the first Christmas song? Although
that question isn’t quite as difficult to answer as
“what was the first song ever?”, the only real
answer is that there’s no way of definitively
proving what the first Christmas song was. We can, however, state with certainty that
Christmas-themed music has been produced
since the fourth century — although it wasn’t
part of most religious services until much later. Until St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century,
Christmas music wasn’t typically used in
religious services. And even after that, the
presence of Christmas music in church wasn’t
continuous. Throughout the centuries, some felt
Christmas music was inappropriate for what was supposed to be a solemn holiday, and so carols
were sung on streets more than in churches
(Oliver Cromwell even banned Christmas carols
in the U.K. during his 17th century reign). Regardless, the oldest Christmas songs we know
about are religious. St. Hilary of Poitiers
composed the Latin carol “Jesus refulsit
omnium” (“Jesus illuminates all”) in the fourth
century, presumably after the first recorded Christmas celebration (336 A.D.). Also in the 4th century, the Roman Christian poet Prudentius
composed “Corde natus ex Parentis.” These,
however, are more hymns than carols. The French version of “The Friendly
Beasts” (written about the animals surrounding
Christ at the nativity) traces back to the 12th
century, making it a strong contender for the
oldest Christmas carol that people still sing
regularly today. Another French oldie, “Entre le bœuf et l’âne gris” (English: “Between the Ox
and the Grey Ass”), is placed by scholars as far
back as the 13th century. The German/Latin
carol “In Dulci Jubilo” (later used by Johann
Sebastian Bach) also dates back to the Middle
Ages. In terms of carols originally composed in
English, the history is more recent, but it’s
similarly uncertain. While “Adam lay ybounden”
has been traced back to the 15th century by
scholars, the song — which is mostly about
Adam from Genesis — hardly resembles a Christmas carol in terms of lyrical content (and
the original music has been lost). Other 15th
century English carols “This Endris Night” and
“Sir Christmas” are more in the holiday spirit,
but mostly forgotten. Fast forward to the 16th century, though, and
we’ve got a song with household name
recognition: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”
While the standard lyrics come from the 19th
century, variations on the song go back to at
least the 1650s. A century later, in 1739, we have the first published version of “Hark! The Herald
Angels Sing.” By the 1800s, a number of the
Christmas carols we know and sing today start
cropping up. In short, the title “World’s Oldest Christmas
Carol” doesn’t really have one easy answer ready
for holiday party trivia. Like much music history
prior to the Guttenberg press, the vast majority
has been lost. So for all we know, traveling
minstrels were singing songs along the lines of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” back in the
Middle Ages.


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