12 Enjoyable Christmas Songs From Early to Recent Music
The Joy of Christmas Music
Listening to Christmas music is an important part of my annual celebration. I enjoy exploring early music songs and more recent ones, including lesser known pieces and ones from other cultures. In this article I describe twelve Christmas songs from different time periods. I also include a video playlist of the music.
The pieces are arranged roughly in order of their composition date. The decision about where to place the older songs in the list is complicated by several factors. Sometimes the tune is a different age from the lyrics. Researchers are often unable to state the exact date of a very old composition. In addition, the version of the song that we are familiar with today is often different from the earliest version, which may have gradually changed through history.
Regardless of where they're placed in the list, I think the songs are interesting. I love listening to them at any time of year, but they are especially enjoyable at Christmas time.
The term "early music" refers to medieval and Renaissance music. It sometimes includes early Baroque music as well.
Byzantine Hymn of the Nativity
Saint Romanos the Melodist was a hymn composer of the sixth century. He was born around the year 490 in Syria and died around 556 in Constantinople. His parents are thought to have been Jewish, though not all researchers agree with this idea. Romanos apparently converted from Judaism to Orthodox Christianity at a young age. He became a deacon in the Church and eventually went to live in Constantinople. Here he remained associated with the Church in some capacity, though the nature of this association isn't completely clear.
"The Hymn of the Nativity" (sometimes known as the Byzantine Hymn of the Nativity) is a famous example of Romanos' many compositions. Unfortunately, none of the music used for his song lyrics has survived. The lyrics were written as poetry and give some indication about how a song should be sung or chanted. The version below is sung in Arabic, but the English words are displayed on the screen. Nader Hajjar from Ottawa is the chanter. I've only recently become acquainted with the piece, but I love it. I think it's haunting and beautiful.
Als I Lay on Yoolis Night
The earliest form of "Als I Lay on Yoolis Night" (As I Lay on Yule's Night) dates from 1372. It's found in a manuscript created by a Franciscan friar named John of Grimstone. The manuscript contains text that would be suitable for sermons as well as poems and carols. It's unknown whether John created the information himself or whether he collected some or all of it from other sources.
In the song, the singer is lying in bed on the night of Yule. He sees a vision of a mother and her young baby, who has the power to speak despite his immaturity. The baby asks his mother to sing a lullaby telling him about his future. As she recounts the Angel Gabriel's message, we realize that the mother and child are Mary and Jesus. In the earliest known version of the piece, the song ends when Mary has finished sharing Gabriel's message with her son. Others continue with Jesus telling Mary more about what he will experience in life.
The Martin Best Medieval Ensemble sings in the video below. Martin Best is a singer, composer, and instrumentalist who often performs in the early music genre. His ensemble was active in the 1980s.
"Noel Nouvelet" is a French song that dates from the late fifteenth or the early sixteenth century. The lyrics have existed in many forms over the years. They describe the joy created by the birth of Jesus. The song was traditionally sung at Christmas and is also said to have been sung at the start of the new year. The latter idea seems a bit strange to me because the most common lyrics are related to the Christmas celebration. The lively version of the song shown below is interesting to hear and to watch.
Apollo's Fire is a baroque orchestra from Cleveland, Ohio. They are known for their creative and energetic performances. The orchestra's founder and conductor is Jeannette Sorrell. Apollo's Fire has achieved international success in bringing fire, or passion, to audiences.
The song "Gaudete" was found in a book called "Piae Cantiones", which was published in 1582. The book was compiled by a Finnish university student named Theodoricus Petri who wanted to preserve some old songs and hymns. "Gaudete" is very likely older than his compilation. The song was originally sung in Latin and often still is today. The word gaudete is Latin for rejoice. The piece is a joyful celebration of Christ's birth and meaning.
The Choir of Clare College, Cambridge performs the song in the video below. They are a mixed voice choir that was founded in 1972 and performs in the services at the college chapel. They also perform for the general public and record their music.
Like the previous song, this one was published in the "Piae Cantiones" compilation and therefore must be older than the book. It's often sung in Latin. Its title in English is "On This Day Earth Shall Ring". Like "Gaudete", the song is a joyful and triumphant description and celebration of Christ's birth. Some modern composers have created their own arrangements of the song, including Gustav Holst and John Rutter.
The Cambridge Singers is a mixed voice chamber choir created by John Rutter in 1981. In its early history, the choir consisted of former members of the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. John Rutter was once the conductor of the choir.
Sweet Was the Song the Virgin Sung
This sweet and gentle song dates from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century. The lyrics contain Mary's lullaby to her newborn baby and refers to the significance of the birth. Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and other modern composers have created their own versions of this lovely piece.
The Baltimore Consort performs the song in the video below. The group performs early music from a variety of time periods. The singer is Jose Limos, who is a countertenor. A countertenor has a vocal range that extends into that of a contralto.
O Come O Come (Veni Veni) Emmanuel
The tune of this majestic song sounds a little sombre to me, which matches its lyrics. The song is really an Advent one that expresses yearning for Christ's arrival. It refers to sad events described in the Bible and the need for Christ to help us. The song can be very effective at stirring the emotions even in some people who don't believe Bible stories, especially when it's sung by a large group.
The piece has an unclear history that involves multiple people. It is known that the English version that we sing today dates from the nineteenth century, though even then more than one person seems to have been involved in its creation. The beginnings of the piece may have come from centuries earlier. The Latin version of the song in the video below is sung by a Swiss choir that calls itself "L'Accroche-Choeur ensemble vocal Fribourg".
The Wexford Carol
The lyrics of "The Wexford Carol" tell the story of Christ's birth in more detail than any other song in this article. Wexford is a town in County Wexford, Ireland. The carol is a traditional Irish song. The lyrics are thought to have been written in English first and translated into Irish later, however.
Like the previous song, the origin of "The Wexford Carol" has proved difficult to date. The carol may have had a very early origin. As the reference below states, the song "achieved a new popularity" in 1928. It was published by William Grattan Flood in the Oxford Book of Carols. William said that he obtained the words and the tune from a local singer and then modified the lyrics.
In the video below, Alison Krauss is the vocalist and Yo-Yo Ma the cellist. Other instrumentalists are briefly highlighted in the video and help to create a rich sound, but unfortunately I don't know their names.
I Wonder as I Wander
"I wonder as I wander" was written in 1933 by John Jacob Niles in the United States. He published it in a booklet in 1934. The beginnings of the piece came to his mind in the form of three lines sung by a girl in North Carolina. The lines came from an earlier song, which the girl didn't completely remember. It's unknown how old the original song was. The version sung today is said to be an Appalachian song.
I think the melody of the song is beautiful. The lyrics are a gentle reflection on the birth, life, and power of Jesus. They're shown in the video below. The version of the song by Linda Ronstadt is my favourite from the ones that I've discovered so far. She sang in a variety of genres during her active years. Unfortunately, she has had to retire from singing due to Parkinson's disease.
The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy
This cheerful song with a calypso-like rhythm probably comes from Trinidad. The lyrics celebrate the birth of Jesus. It's unknown when the piece was created. North American fans of folk music may have first become aware of the song via a 1945 book by Edric Connor or perhaps by a 1958 performance of the song by Harry Belafonte.
Edric Connor was an actor, singer, and folk song collector from the Caribbean. His book was entitled "The Edric Connor Collection of West Indian Spirituals and Folk Songs". He collected "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy" by listening to an elderly man singing it. The song may have been created long before this time, however. I think it's a great addition to the Christmas repertoire.
The song below was sung by the Robert DeCormier singers and ensemble, which no longer exists. (The musician's last name is spelled both DeCormier and De Cormier, depending on the source.) Robert died in 2017 at the age of 95 after many years of devotion to music.
Christmas in Killarney
"Christmas in Killarney" was composed in 1950 by John Redmond, James Cavanaugh, and Frank Weldon. The composers were all Irish Americans. The song as sung below is a cheerful, rollicking piece about Christmas time in Killarney, a town in Ireland. The song mentions some of the joys of Christmas, including holly, ivy, Santa Claus, and kissing under the mistletoe. The house is open to neighbours and Father John blesses it before he leaves. The lyrics are shown on the video screen.
In the video, the song is performed by The Irish Rovers. This popular group was formed in 1963 in Canada. It has recorded many songs and has appeared on television multiple times. The group promotes Irish music and culture while sharing enjoyable music. Its membership has changed over the years, but the group continues to entertain people.
Walking in the Air
"Walking in the Air" was part of the soundtrack for the 1982 animated television film entitled "The Snowman". The song is sung by a boy as he flies through the air with the snowman that he has made and that has come alive. The lyrics of the sing are the only words in the film. The rest of the plot is accompanied by music.
The film shows the making of the snowman and the sights that it shows the boy on their journey to the North Pole to meet Father Christmas. This is the usual name for Santa Claus in the UK, where the film was made. The plot is based on a picture book for children written by Raymond Briggs.
The lyrics of the song don't mention Christmas, but the film is associated with the celebration due to the snowy environment and the visit to Father Christmas. Peter Auty was the choirboy from St Paul's Cathedral who sang the song. Today he's an operatic tenor. The song is also associated with the young Aled Jones, who sang the song a little later after Peter's voice had changed. The music is loved even by adults for the quality of the young Peter Auty's voice, the melody, and the association with a magical event.
If parents are tempted to watch "The Snowman" with their young children or if they want to buy the book for a child, they might want to prepare them for the fact that the snowman eventually melts as the temperature rises.
Many worthy Christmas songs from early and more recent periods can be heard today, either in live performances or in recordings. People who can read music or play a musical instrument will be able to find even more options for enjoying the songs. Vocal and instrumental music can be a wonderful addition to the other celebrations at Christmas time, whatever the meaning of the season for a person.
Information about Romanos the Melodist from the OCA (Orthodox Church in America)
More facts about St. Romanos from the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
An article about "As I Lay on Yule's Night" at the Corymbus classical music website
The "Noel Nouvelet" entry from Hymns and Carols of Christmas (This site also has historical information about other songs referred to in this article.)
The Piae Cantiones entry from Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Information about "The Wexford Carol" from Patrick Comerford (an Irish clergyman in the Anglican tradition)
Information about John Jacob Niles from Teaching American History
Christmas in Killarney and other song facts from The American Festival of Christmas
Walking in the Air facts and lyrics from the Ukulele Club Amsterdam
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Linda Crampton