Christmas carols are great… for a while. But no matter how much you love the holidays you can only hear “Deck the Halls” so many times before you want to deck someone’s face, and having to hear b-list celebrities mangle their way through the classics doesn’t help.
But “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “White Christmas” and other staples are like the big hits bands have to play to keep casual fans entertained. Hardcore fans, meanwhile, can dig into the huge back catalog to find the really good stuff. You probably won’t hear these carols on the radio, but they’re well worth listening to if you’ve already heard about an entire retirement home’s worth of grandmothers getting run over by reindeer.
10. “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella”
“Bring a Torch” dates back to 16th century Provence, and is set to French dance music that’s even older. An English translation came about in the 18th century, and while there are a variety of lyrics out there the gist is always the same—Jesus has been born, and a pair of milkmaids need to spread the good word about him, and also about how they’ve got some delicious cake to celebrate. No, seriously—“Open up, we’ve arranged on a platter, lovely cakes that we have brought here.” More songs should promise delicious cake.
It’s not exactly the most theologically complex carol out there, and it’s never explained why two girls are needed to bring one torch around or why they’re loudly singing about the need to keep it down so the Lamb of God can get some shuteye, but whatever—the simple carol is upbeat and catchy. It even inspired a classic painting, and while it’s obscure in most of the world it remains a Christmas staple in Provence. And it sounds stunning when you get the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to go nuts with it, although they could set the application instructions for Vagisil to music and make it gorgeous.
9. “This Endris Night”
Do you like the slow moodiness of “Silent Night” but are sick of hearing about how all is calm and all is bright? “This Endris Night” (“The Other Night”) has a similar tone, but this 15th century English carol predates the German classic by roughly 400 years. So you can listen to something new and act all smug and hip about how you appreciate the old-school classics.
The piece is a dialogue between Jesus and Mary, and while the solemn music and deep choral singing make it sound like they’re discussing events of, well, Biblical proportions, their conversation is surprisingly light-hearted in parts. Mary wishes she had given birth in a home more befitting a King, while Jesus’ response is basically “Whatevs, Kings are going to come here to see me. Now keep going with your rad lullaby, Mom,” except he says it a little classier because he’s the Son of God.
So while it’s definitely a Christian carol about how great Jesus is, it also works as a sweet conversation between a mother and a son who love each other and appreciate what they bring each other in life. That makes it the perfect carol to play for your own mother if you’re too emotionally distant to just come out and say how you feel.
8. “Huron Carol”
Written around 1642 by French missionary Jean de Brébeuf, the “Huron Carol” is well-known in Canada but not so much outside of it. Originally known as “Jesous Ahatonhia” (“Jesus, He Is Born”), the song was written in Wendat and set to traditional French folk music as part of Brébeuf’s attempts to convert Aboriginals. That makes it Canada’s first Christmas song, as well as one of the earliest songs written on the continent by colonists.
A wide variety of English versions exist, including literal translations of the song’s relatively straightforward telling of the Nativity story and versions that modify the lyrics to work in a great deal more Huron imagery. The latter have had mixed results—while it’s interesting to see a famous story be told with another culture’s symbols, lines like “Children of the forest free” come across as patronizing and tone deaf. Still other versions take these modified words and change them back to include more traditional European Christian imagery for the benefit of those who wouldn’t under the Aboriginal references.
It’s a complicated and sometimes sketchy history, but it makes for an interesting lesson on how and how not to spread your beliefs to another culture. And from a musical perspective it makes for a refreshing change, especially if you listen to it in its original Wendat form.
7. “Past Three A Clock”
“Past Three A Clock” is loosely inspired by the calls of night watchmen, making it the perfect carol for anyone who finds themselves up in the wee hours of the morning, whether you’re a night owl, stumbling home from a great Christmas party or just looking to get a big head start on present opening. We doubt night watchmen also sang verse after verse about the birth of Jesus to each other, because no matter how devout you are that would get tedious night-in and night-out, not to mention all the complaints you’d get from residents. But the opening refrain, “Past three a clock, and a cold frosty morning, past three a clock; good morrow, masters all!” is by all accounts something watchmen did bellow back and forth, which is kind of adorable.
While the 1924 carol is relatively new, both the refrain and the melody can be found as early as the mid-17th century. “Past Three A Clock” was written by the same fellow responsible for “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” so you can think of this as the obscure, underappreciated B-side to his big hit. Both debuted in The Cambridge Carol-Book, which contains all sorts of carols that have fallen into obscurity. While some are tragically underappreciated, we’re not surprised that others have been forgotten—when you publish “Although at Yule It Bloweth Cool,” “Outside, How Hard It Bloweth!” and “Heap On More Wood! The Wind Is Chill” all in the same book you give the impression that you’re phoning it in.
6. “Adam lay ybounden”
There are two things that make “Adam lay ybounden” fascinating. First, for a holiday that’s all about Jesus it’s unusual to see a carol about the Fall of Man, especially one that’s written in a tone where Adam eating the forbidden apple comes across as your slacker roommate spending his rent money on beer like a putz. Scholars have noted that the line “And all was for an apple” carries a certain incredulity that would be better accompanied by “We’re getting kicked out because you needed to get a two-four of Milwaukee’s Best? Seriously?” rather than a declaration that you’ve doomed humanity to a lifetime of sin. Jesus’ arrival in the third verse therefore seems less like the Son of God showing up to preach and more like your cool cousin coming into town and helping you out with the cash-flow situation because he just got a big bonus.
But scholars have also noted that the song supports Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of felix culpa which, long story short, suggests that the whole getting kicked out of paradise thing was good for humanity in the long run because it brought us Jesus. We’re not looking to start a theological debate, but we will say that’s an unusually complicated message for a Christmas carol… especially one dated circa 1400 that was found on the same page as “I have a gentil cok,” which is about exactly what you think it’s about. We’re told that every night said cock perches in the singer’s lady’s chamber, which means one of the more religiously introspective Christmas carols in history was found on the same page as a musical dick joke.
5. “The Friendly Beasts”
Not every religious carol needs to be serious and thoughtful. “The Friendly Beasts” is a song where the animals hanging out in the back of nativity displays take credit for their underappreciated contributions. Sure, Mary gave birth to Jesus, but the donkey was the one who got her to where she needed to be. The nativity story would be a lot sketchier if she had to give birth on the side of the road.
The simple, goofy lyrics make the song sound like something that could have been written by a ‘80s children’s entertainer, but the words in fact go back to the 1920s. The music, however, has a much longer history that’s impressive for a song where a dove brags about his cooing—it’s from a piece called “Orientis Partibus” that was first performed in France way back in the 12th century.
“Orientis Partibus,” or “Orient Party Bus” as we can’t help but read it, was associated with a number of religious festivals but was especially relevant to the Feast of the Ass. In addition to being a video you wouldn’t want to let your parents or significant other catch you watching, it was a medieval feast celebrating the Flight to Egypt. In the original words the donkey gets four verses celebrating his accomplishments, meaning it took the majority of a millennium for the cow, sheep and dove to get their due. Keep that in mind the next time you’re annoyed your boss hasn’t said a nice thing about you all week.
4. “Sans Day Carol”
The “Sans Day Carol” is also known as “O The Holly She Bears a Berry,” which isn’t to be confused with “The Holly and the Ivy.” Or “We’ve Decked The Church With Ivy.” Or “The Holly Carol.” Or “Green Grow’th The Holly.” Or “A Song Of the Ivy and the Holly.” Or… okay, you get the idea. Despite the fact that the average person probably couldn’t identify a sprig of holly if their life depended on it, there are approximately eight million carols dedicated to the plant. “Sans Day Carol,” a 19th century Cornish carol is one of the catchier tributes to the foliage (and Jesus), but seriously, what’s with all the greenery songs?
You won’t find any holly in the Holy Land, but the plant was long associated with the winter solstice, the Roman god Saturn and other non-Christmas-y things worth celebrating. So it was only natural that they’d worm their way into Christmas celebrations as the holiday gained steam in Europe. Holly is easy to find, making it accessible and cheap as a decoration. And, in an age where the average person was illiterate, holly made for a convenient symbol in teaching religious lessons. “Hey, you want to know about this Jesus guy? He was a lot like this holly berry. How, you ask? Well, let me explain…”
And that’s why holly and ivy get entire albums’ worth of material dedicated to them while poinsettias get screwed out of a single good musical number.
3. “In the Bleak Midwinter”
Not every carol is about how awesome Christmas is. “In the Bleak Midwinter” is mostly a pro-Jesus tune, because that’s what almost every old-timey carol is about. But the first verse, with lines like “frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone” makes you want to hibernate until mid-July. And while the other lyrics are far less likely to give you spontaneous hypothermia, they’re still sombre and moody.
“Midwinter” was written as a poem in 1872 before being set to music in 1906, and while it’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser it’s popular among choral music enthusiasts—a 2008 BBC poll of choirmasters named it the greatest Christmas carol ever written. So not only is it nice and peaceful, you can feel incredibly smug when you’re listening to it. “Change the song, this one is boring,” your friends will say. “Oh yeah? Are you bored by the greatest Christmas carol ever?” you’ll respond in derision, and then they’ll have to go out and buy you another gift just to make up for their shame.
For a song that sounds like you should be listening to it as you drift off to sleep, “Midwinter” has prompted a fair bit of theological debate and literary analysis. Some theologians have objected to its description of Jesus and heaven, while others have praised it. So if you’re sick of going to Christmas parties where everyone gets drunk on spiked eggnog and pounds back cookies, why not gather a few friends around your stereo for some friendly carol-theology debate? It may not be the most popular party of the season, but it will certainly be the most memorable.
2. “The Cherry Tree Carol”
“The Cherry Tree Carol” is one of the odder carols, as it contains an unborn Jesus talking from the womb and the Biblical version of baby daddy drama. The short version is that Joseph and a pregnant Mary are on the road, and when they reach a garden Mary asks Joseph to pick some cherries for her. A huffy Joseph is all “Why don’t you get the kid’s dad to do it?” presumably before snapping his fingers and stomping off.
The fetal Jesus responds to this little spat by commanding the tree to lower its branches. That’s an impressive feat for someone who hasn’t been born yet, although we can’t help but imagine his voice being muffled and the tree being all “Huh? What was that?” before the situation got sorted out. At any rate, Mary gets her cherries, Joseph immediately apologizes for being a jerk and the family is happy again.
That’s far from the first miracle you’d associate with Jesus, and it’s certainly not one you’d expect to be set to a folk tune. But “The Cherry Tree Carol” has existed in one form or another since the early 15th century, when it was performed during spring’s Feast of Corpus Christi. Better known in England than elsewhere, the carol has been set to all sorts of different music over the centuries. It’s actually the Christmas carol equivalent of a remix, as it takes lyrics from three different carols. That explains why some versions of the carol jump from the cherry tree incident to a young Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection to Mary, with presumably nothing of importance happening in-between.
Analysts have pointed out the symbolism of Mary being given permission by God to eat fruit from a garden, and others have observed that a similar story was found in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, one of the unauthorized biographies of Jesus’ childhood. It’s a rich and complex history for the carol considering it’s about Joseph being too lazy to pick some fruit and his unborn step-son calling him out on it.
1. “Veni redemptor gentium”
Determining what the very first Christmas carol was is a tricky proposition. Aside from the fact that the research is made difficult by the fact that 6th century Europe didn’t have Wikipedia or even a decent card catalog system, how do you define a carol? A solemn hymn isn’t quite the same as an upbeat number you can dance to. Are they both carols? Does it matter?
To scholars and pendants, yes, but we’re not going to let ourselves get wrapped up in technicalities. We’ll just say that while “Veni redemptor gentium” (“Come, redeemer of the nations”) may not be first Christmas carol, or even technically a carol at all, the late fourth century hymn is certainly one of the first pieces of music to be written specifically for the Christmas season.
Composed by the influential Saint Ambrose, the hymn is your standard solemn tribute to Jesus. It’s a calming piece, the sort of thing you feel like you should listen to while sitting by a dark window, sipping hot chocolate, watching the snow fall and contemplating the past year.
But what’s most impressive about the piece is simply that it’s survived and is performed regularly to this day. It’s even grown more popular with time, as a German translation by Martin Luther gave it new prominence. Regardless of your religious beliefs, it’s humbling to celebrate a holiday by listening to a piece of music written a man commemorating the exact same day who died over 1600 years ago. Imagine creating something that’s enjoyed for that long—while we fully hope that TopTenz will be read by cyborgs taking a break from colonizing Neptune in 3600, we can’t say we have our hopes up.
Mark is the senior editor of TopTenz. Read more from him at his website.