Exploring the Oldest Christmas Carols

With the arrival of Advent season and the anticipation of Christmas arriving soon, decorations are taken out of storage, dusted off, and excitedly placed around our homes. Lights are strung around our trees, houses, and towns, illuminating the darkest time of the year with all the glory that modern LED technology can provide, while nativity scenes decorate neighborhoods and churches, reminding us why we celebrate. The visuals of the Christmas season are often beautiful and heart-warming; however, many people eagerly anticipate the auditory elements of the season even more than the illuminated displays. No holiday has such a well-defined catalog of music as the Christmas season. Classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Let it Snow” are blasted ad-nauseum on multiple radio stations and at every grocery store and mall in the country. 

Many Christians like myself aren’t particular fans of these more modern secular tunes, however, as they can obfuscate the origins of Christmas, often focusing only on the material aspects of Christmas. There’s nothing wrong with many of these secular songs, it’s just that they fail to hone in on the central aspect of the season – Christ. Looking through the catalog of Christmas carols, one will find that the older tunes are much more likely to be Christ-centered, especially the pre-twentieth century hymns. 

Most of us are well acquainted with many 18th and 19th century carols, like “Joy to the World”, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Away in a Manger.” With so many of our popular Christmas carols hailing from the last 200 years, one wonders if there are more ancient carols that were sung in the centuries preceding our own. What, if any, were the carols the earliest Christians sang in celebration of the Lord’s Incarnation? Let’s explore some of the most ancient Christmas carols that have survived the centuries.

Jesus Refulsit Omnium

Meaning “Jesus, Light of All the Nations” in Latin, “Jesus Refulsit Omnium” is reportedly one of the oldest Christmas hymns. The hymn was written in the early 4th century by St. Hilary of Poitiers, an early Bishop and Doctor of the Church [1]. The hymn describes the gift-bearing Magi arriving to find the infant Jesus’ newly born. The lyrics are roughly translated to:

Jesus, devoted redeemer of all nations, has shone forth,

Let the whole family of the faithful celebrate the stories

The shining star, gleaming in the heavens, makes him known at his birth and, going before, has led the Magi to his cradle

Falling down, they adore the tiny baby hidden in rags,

as they bear witness to the true God by bringing a mystical gift. [2]

Check out the link below to hear a modern rendition of the carol:

Corde Natus Ex Parentis

“Corde Natus Ex Parentis” (Of the Father’s Love Begotten) is a variation of the Latin poem “Corde Natus” by fourth century Roman poet Aurelius Prudentius. The poem was often paired with chant  melodies during the medieval period, mainly the tune of “Divinum mysterium” [3]. The lyrics of the hymn sing praises to the glory of the Incarnation and give thanks to God for saving mankind from sin through the Resurrection. A snippet reads:

He assumed this mortal body,

Frail and feeble, doomed to die,

That the race from dust created,

Might not perish utterly,

Which the dreadful Law had sentenced

In the depths of hell to lie,

Evermore and evermore.

A version paired with the medieval chant “Divinum Mysterium” can be found here:

O Antiphons/Veni Emanuel

The O Antiphons are short hymns used at vespers (evening service) during the final seven days of Advent. They date at least to the sixth-century, where famous Roman senator and Christian martyr Boethius refers to them in the text The Consolation of Philosophy. Each hymn begins with the phrase “O” and an attribute of Christ. The seven O Antiphons are:

O Sapientia (O Wisdom) – December 17th

O Adonai (O Lord) – December 18th

O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse) – December 19th

O Clavis David (O Key of David) – December 20th

O Oriens (O Dayspring) – December 21st

O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations) – December 22nd

O Emmanuel (O With Us is God) – December 23

The O Antiphons are still sung as musical features in western Churches today and are summarized in the popular Christmas hymn “Veni Emanuel” (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel). Veni Emanuel is simply a paraphrased version of the seven hymns [4].

An excellent rendition of “Veni Emanuel” can be found below:

O Sola Magnarum Urbium

Though technically an Epiphany hymn and not a Christmas Carol, “O Sola Magnarum Urbium” contains many elements of the traditional Christmas story and only misses the official Christmas season by a single day – the Epiphany typically ends the 12 Days of Christmas.  Translating to “Earth Has Many a Noble City,” the hymn tells the story of the magi following the Star of Bethlehem to the infant Jesus. They then offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the child. Like a previous selection in our article, this hymn was written by fourth century poet Prudentius [5].  

Check out a performance of the hymn here:

Conclusion

Despite the richness of Christian musical tradition, it’s difficult to find much before the medieval period. The explosion of musical chants and prayers that came out of the monastic movements prove what a vital role they have played in the preservation and development of western music, especially Christmas carols.

So what’s your favorite Christmas carol? Old or new, let us know in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Exploring the Oldest Christmas Carols

  1. Good to hear! You may (?) remember me from the Gab group Old Books where you posted. For several reasons, I closed my Gab account. The regular posters at the group and I have set up shop at the independent and multi-authored The Old Books Blog. We’d appreciate your joining us if you’d like to cross-post and comment there. Just getting off the ground and we’d welcome you!

    https://oldschoolhouseroadpublishing.com/old-books-blog/

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