(You should click the above time line to get a larger, more readable version).
Before we can answer the question of the first or earliest Christmas carol, we need to deal with some preliminary questions. What is a carol? What is a Christmas carol? And how does one determine a date for Christmas carol? None of these questions are trivial.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “carol” as “a ring-dance with accompaniment of song” or “a song; originally, that to which they danced” or “a song or hymn of religious joy”. The later definition hits the mark most closely. However, we also have a large number of non-religious seasonal songs of similar joyous character, and I will include them as well. But even then there are some little controversies to note:
- Is “Jingle Bells” really a Christmas carol? The best evidence is that the song was composed for Thanksgiving, not Christmas.
- And what about “Do you hear what I hear?” This was written in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If you read the lyrics with any care it becomes obvious that the imagery is about missiles not Christmas: “A star, a star, dancing in the night \ With a tail as big as a kite.”
However, both songs appear to have become seasonal standards, regardless of their original meaning, so who am I to argue to otherwise?
Dating carols is also tricky, especially since the tune and the lyrics often date from different times. A great example is “What Child is This?” where the lyrics date to 1865, but the tune (Greensleeves) dates to the 16th Century. Where such dates differ I take the later date, the date when the text and the tune were wedded. In some cases the text might have been set to music multiple times, with different tunes in use in different countries. “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks at Night” is a great example, set to numerous tunes from 1700 to 1903. In such cases I have taken the date of the version most-familiar in the United States.
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The above time line shows the Christmas carols that I knew in my childhood. Your core group of carols may differ from this, based on your age, country, language, ethnicity, religion, etc. Although my horizons would widen as I grew older and went to school, so I can now recognize a broader set of international and ancient carols, from “In Dulci Jubilo” to “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” to “Riu Riu Chiu,” the above set represents my “native” carols, the ones I knew as a child. Everything beyond that I consider to be an import.
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The oldest carol on this time line is, not surprisingly, “Adeste Fideles”, published in 1751, with a history that goes back even further. I remember it being sung in church in my youth, with the words slightly modified, coming out with a loud, clear-throated “Adeste Fideles!” followed by a muted, “mumble, mumble mumble” until a fortissimo “in Bethlehem.” Maybe it was different when Latin was still taught in schools.
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It is also notable, looking at the time line, that there was a “golden age” of carol writing, say 1840-1860. We have hardly seen a prominent traditional church carol since then. However, the 20th century has given us a large number of new secular standards and commercial holiday songs.
I’d be interested in hearing from other traditions and cultures: What is the earliest holiday song that you commonly hear this time of year? Something a mother might sing to a child, or a family or church sing together?