Top five Christmas Carols

‘Tis the season to be jolly and to lustily sing favourite Christmas carols.

In fact, at this time of the year it is almost impossible to avoid them as they are sung in great cathedrals, in village churches and in mission halls. They even provide the background music in shopping malls and department stores.

Buskers sing them in shop doorways and Salvation Army bands blare them out at practically every street corner.

Carols have a long history and some of them date back to the late 12th and early 13th century. By the arrival of the 14th century they were widely regarded as a respectable form of religious music. They were often sung to accompany dancing, a sinful pursuit in the eyes of the church fathers who were quick to ban this ungodly practice. Consequently, by the 16th century the popularity of carols began to falter and some disappeared without trace.

They enjoyed a revival in the middle of the 18th century and most that are sung today date from this period. Continue reading....


New and more modern carols have appeared over the years but few have fully captured the public’s attention. This has resulted in the traditional carol remaining the most popular even if some of the theology and rhyming forms used in them can best be described as somewhat dodgy.

In a recent survey into the top five favourite carols the way is led by the enduring ‘Silent Night’. It was first heard in St Nicholas Church in Oberdorf in Austria on Christmas Eve 1818 where it was sung in the original German by the assistant pastor Father Joseph Mohr to a guitar accompaniment composed by Franz Xaver Gruber. Despite the passing years its popularity is undimmed. Next up was ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ composed in 1739 by Charles Wesley whose brother John founded the Methodist Church. This rousing carol was eventually set to the tune we know today by English composer William H Cummings who was greatly influenced by the music of Mendelssohn. In third place was ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, written in 1848 by the poetess Cecil Humphreys who also gave us ‘All things Bright and Beautiful’. A year after its publication it was set to music by the composer and noted organist John Gauntlett.

Close on its heels comes ‘Away in a Manger’, greatly loved for its charming simplicity. This has been erroneously attributed to the reformer Martin Luther as a version of the carol was include in his collection of cradle song. Credit for the version we sing today must go to the American James R Murray and his new world colleague Dr John MacFarland who appended the last verse.

Last, but by no means least, comes ‘Child in the Manger’, beloved by all and Scottish Presbyterians in particular. It was written in Gaelic as ‘Leanabh an Aigh’ by the Mull poetess Mary MacDonald and translated into English by Lachlann MacBean and is sung to a traditional Highland air which now goes under the title ‘Bunessan’ after the Mull township where the bardess spent practically all of her life.

Your favourite carol may not have made it into the top five. Despair not, they change practically every year.

And you can still sing your own personal favourite loud and clear and have yourself a very merry Christmas in the process.
Nollaig chridheil.

Written by Hugh Smith for the Ileach Newspaper

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