‘Tis the season for those Christmas carols and hymns that we all know and love. Every year we are blessed with the opportunity to remember our Lord Jesus Christ and to sing carols that warm our hearts and glorify Him. Many carols have been written over time, but there are few that can be considered a top Christmas carol or hymn. Each carol or hymn has a story behind it with some more intriguing than others as you will see. Here is our list of the top 20 most popular carols and hymns of all time and a little snippet of how they came to be the songs we know and love. Songs have been chosen based on popular organic searches through Google.
Special Mention: George Whitefield (1753)
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is a Christmas carol that first appeared in 1739 in the collection Hymns and Sacred Poems, having been written by Charles Wesley. His original opening couplet is Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings. The popular version is the result of alterations by various hands, notably by Wesley’s co-worker George Whitefield who changed the opening couplet to the familiar one, and by Felix Mendelssohn. A hundred years after the publication of Hymns and Sacred Poems, in 1840, Mendelssohn composed a cantata to commemorate Johann Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, and it is music from this cantata, adapted by the English musician William H. Cummings to fit the lyrics of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, that propels the carol known today.
Special Mention: John Stainer (1871)
The word, noel, seems to be a French word with Latin roots: natalis, meaning “birthday.” It was first published in Carols Ancient and Modern (1823) and Gilbert and Sandys Carols (1833), both of which were edited by William Sandys and arranged, edited and with extra lyrics written by Davies Gilbert for Hymns and Carols of God. Today, it is usually performed in a four-part hymn arrangement by the English composer John Stainer, first published in his Carols, New and Old in 1871. Variations of its theme are included in Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony.
Special Mention: Lowell Mason (1839)
The words are by English hymn writer Isaac Watts, based on the second half of Psalm 98 in the Bible. The song was first published in 1719 in Watts’ collection; The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship. Watts wrote the words of Joy to the World as a hymn glorifying Christ’s triumphant return at the end of the age, rather than a song celebrating his first coming. The nations are called to celebrate because God’s faithfulness to the house of Israel has brought salvation to the world. The music was adapted and arranged to Watts’ lyrics by Lowell Mason in 1839 from an older melody which was then believed to have originated from George Frideric Handel.
Silent Night is a popular Christmas carol, composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. A broken church organ in the midst of a Christmas Eve midnight service presented an opportunity for God to show his creativity. Father Joseph created the lyrics on the spot, brought the text to Franz Gruber to create a simple tune. Thus, Silent Night was sung for the first time. After its publication in 1838, this song has been recorded by a large number of singers from every music genre.
We Three Kings, also known as We Three Kings of Orient Are or The Quest of the Magi, is a Christmas carol that was written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., in 1857. At the time of composing the carol, Hopkins served as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and he wrote the carol for a Christmas pageant in New York City. Many versions of this song have been composed, but it remains the most popular and most frequently sung Christmas carol today.
Special Mention: Henry Sloane Coffin (1916)
O come, O come, Emmanuel is a Christian hymn for Advent. While it is most commonly known by that English title, it is in fact a translation of the original Latin, Veni, Veni, Emmanuel; translations into other modern languages (particularly German) are also in widespread use. The 1861 translation of Hymns Ancient and Modern is the most prominent by far in the English-speaking world, but other English translations also exist. The hymn is a metrical paraphrase of the O Antiphons, a series of plainchant antiphons attached to the Magnificat at Vespers over the final days before Christmas.
What Child Is This? is a Christmas carol whose lyrics were written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. At the time of composing the carol, Dix worked as an insurance company manager and had been struck by a severe illness. While recovering, he underwent a spiritual renewal that led him to write several hymns, including lyrics to this carol that was subsequently set to the tune of Greensleeves, a traditional English folk song. Although it was written in England, the carol is more popular in the United States than in its country of origin today.
Special Mention: Frederick Oakeley (1845)
O Come, All Ye Faithful (originally written in Latin as Adeste Fideles) is a Christmas carol which has been attributed to various authors. In 1743, John Francis Wade had produced a copy of the now popular O Come, All Ye Faithful. After his passing in 1786, English Catholics began returning to Britain, bringing the carol with them. Frederick Oakeley eventually came across this carol and was so moved that he decided to translate it into English for Margaret Street Chapel. After converting to Catholicism in 1845, Oakeley revised the original Ye Faithful, Approach Ye to the now famous O Come, All Ye Faithful, Joyful and Triumphant.
Special Mention: John Dwight
O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël) is a well-known Christmas carol composed by Adolphe Charles Adam in 1847 to the French poem Minuit, chrétiens (Midnight, Christians) by a wine merchant and poet, Placide Cappeau (1808–1877). John Dwight discovered this French Carol and translated it into the English hymn O Holy Night.
Away in a Manger is a Christmas carol first published in the late nineteenth century and used widely throughout the English-speaking world. In 1887, Away in a Manger appeared in a little book of songs entitled Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses, published in Cincinnati by the John Church Company. The mystery of this song gives credit to the great reformer Martin Luther, noting him as the composer of the song. Further research found this mystery to be false, but it still leaves no original composer to be named. In Britain, it is one of the most popular carols; a 1996 Gallup Poll ranked it joint second. The two most-common musical settings are by William J. Kirkpatrick (1895) and James R. Murray (1887).
Special Mention: James Chadwick (1862)
Angels We Have Heard on High is a Christmas carol of French origin in the public domain. The song commemorates the story of the birth of Jesus Christ found in the Gospel of Luke, in which shepherds outside Bethlehem encounter a multitude of angels singing and praising the newborn child. The words of the song are based on a traditional French carol known as Les Anges dans nos campagnes (literally, “Angels in our countryside”) composed by an unknown author in Languedoc, France. That song has received many adjustments or alignments including its most common English version that was translated in 1862 by James Chadwick, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, northeast England. The carol quickly became popular in the West Country, where it was described as ‘Cornish’ by R.R. Chope, and featured in Pickard-Cambridge’s Collection of Dorset Carols.
Messiah (Hallelujah Chorus) is an English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frideric Handel, with a scriptural text compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible, and from the version of the Psalms included with the Book of Common Prayer. It was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. After an initially modest public reception, the oratorio gained in popularity, eventually becoming one of the best-known and most frequently performed choral works in Western music.
Go Tell It on the Mountain is an African-American spiritual song, compiled by John Wesley Work, Jr., that has been sung and recorded by many gospel and secular performers. The original song composed by the African-American “spirituals” was taken by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. When John enrolled at Fisk University, he became heavily involved in their music program even though it was not his primary area of study. He soon came across the African-American spirituals and grew to love them and wanted to preserve them. In 1907, John published many of the spirituals, but Go Tell It On The Mountain became largely known. Today it is considered a Christmas carol because its original lyrics celebrate the Nativity of Jesus.
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (1849) — sometimes rendered as It Came Upon a Midnight Clear — is a poem and Christmas carol written by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. Sears’ lyrics are most commonly set to one of two melodies: Carol, composed by Richard Storrs Willis, or Noel, adapted from an English melody. It Came Upon the Midnight Clear is the mirror image of a carol written fifteen years prior, Calm on the Listening Ear. Interesting enough, there is no mention of Christ, the newborn Babe, or the Savior’s mission. Sears focus for the carol is the angelic request for peace on earth.
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day got its birth from the Civil War (1861). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went through a number of devastating family circumstances in the years prior to the conception of this carol. Filled with tragedy and discouragement, Henry composed this carol to vent all of his feelings and emotions during this time. Two stanzas, now omitted from most hymnals, speak of the cannons thundering in the South and of hatred tearing apart, “the hearth-stones of a continent.” Henry, at this point, wants to hang his head and wallow in despair, but then he hears the Christmas Bells and is reminded that, “God’s not dead, nor doth He sleep.”
Special Mention: Lewis Redner (1868)
O Little Town of Bethlehem is a popular Christmas carol. The text was written by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest, and rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia. He was inspired by visiting the village of Bethlehem in the Sanjak of Jerusalem in 1865. Three years later, he wrote the poem for his church and asked his organist, Lewis Redner, to come up with a tune to match the poem for the Christmas program that year. After initially struggling with inspiration for the tune, Lewis was struck with inspiration on the night before the Christmas program. Due to their agreement, Redner’s tune was then titled “St. Louis,” and today this tune is used most often for this carol in the U.S.
Angels, from the Realms of Glory is inspired by Luke 2:13. The author, James Montgomery was a Scottish-born hymnodist, poet, and editor. Attributing to his writing was a devotion to Christ and to the Scriptures. Angels, from the Realms of Glory was first sung in a Moravian Church in England on Christmas Day, 1821.
Do You Hear What I Hear? is a song written in October 1962, with lyrics by Noël Regney and music by Gloria Shayne Baker. The pair, married at the time, wrote it as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Regney had been invited by a record producer to write a Christmas song, but he was hesitant due to the commercialism of the Christmas holiday. It has since sold tens of millions of copies and has been covered by hundreds of artists.
Special Mention: Michael English (1991)
Mary, Did You Know? is a Christmas song with lyrics and music written by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene. It was originally recorded by Christian recording artist, Michael English on his solo debut album in 1991 (English and Lowry were both members of the Gaither Vocal Band). Lowry would record the song several times himself, most notably with the Gaither Vocal Band on their 1998 Christmas album.
Special Mention: Trapp Family Singers (1955)
The Little Drummer Boy (originally known as Carol of the Drum) is a popular Christmas song written by the American classical music composer and teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941. It was recorded in 1955 by the Trapp Family Singers and further popularized by a 1958 recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale. This version was re-released successfully for several years and the song has been recorded many times since.