Although we may think of Christmas Carols as being peculiarly British, they originate from mainland Europe. The first Christmas hymn derives from 4th century Rome, after which France and Germany took up the mantle. The first English carols appeared in 1426, in a collection by John Awdley. Initially, carols were sung during a communal celebration, such as harvest or Christmas, and were only later appropriated by the church.

A medieval carol Nowell, Nowell - tydyngs trew:

We asked our reviewers for their favourite carols. 

From Beate Langenbruch, a German carol, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, which she likes for its offset rhythm and its medieval origins:

Lorenzo Fiorito selects Quanno nascette ninno, a Christmas carol from Naples. It is a 1700 song in Neapolitan, which, translated into Italian, has become the national Christmas hymn. This is the original version, where you  can listen to the peculiar Neapolitan singing, voice and intonation: 

Here’s the French carol Entre le bœuf et l'âne gris, performed in Finland:

From Scandinavia, Mitt hjerte alltid vanker (My Heart Always Wanders). Written in 1732, it is by a Danish Lutheran bishop, Hans Adolph Brorson:

Matthew Martinez has chosen I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day – “a particularly special carol to me. The poem was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the American Civil War, after hearing of his son’s severe injury in battle. The music is by Johnny Marks (better known for Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer). A soaring, strophic melody that simply suits the poetry, the carol is optimistic yet particularly comforting in a weary world.”

Brian Wigman writes “Americans have not contributed a great deal to the traditional caroling canon, to put it generously, but these charming carols by jazz musician Alfred S. Burt fall easily on the ear and can be performed in a variety of styles. Written in northern Michigan for family Christmas cards, Burt and his father, a Episcopal Minister, wrote these carols together for several years  Having sung them several years ago with brass band, what touches me most is their simplicity and beauty. Some Children See Him and Caroling, Caroling have even entered American popular culture through artists like James Taylor and Nat King Cole. Often hard to find in printed editions or on disc, they are a reminder of Christmases long gone from how we celebrate today.


Merry Christmas – and happy carolling – to you all!