The Origins of 10 Popular Christmas Carols

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iStock.com/artisteer

You've sung them while clutching cups of hot cocoa, cozying up around a fire, or stomping through snowdrifts. You've heard them played in shopping malls, churches, and holiday parties. You know all their words by heart. But do you know how some of the world's best-known Christmas carols were created?

1. "Silent Night"

The legend behind one of the most popular Christmas carols in the world plays out as a sort of Christmas miracle. The story goes that Father Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Austria, was determined to have music at his Christmas Eve service, even though the organ at his beloved St Nicholas Church was broken. So, he penned a poem and asked his friend Franz Gruber to compose a score for it that would not demand an organ. The truth, however, is a little less dramatic.

In 1816, the Catholic priest wrote the poem "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!" while stationed at a pilgrim church in Mariapfarr, Austria. When he transferred to St. Nicholas's two years later, he did ask Gruber to help him write guitar music for the poem, which the two performed—backed by a choir—on Christmas Eve of 1818. "Silent Night" was translated into English more than 40 years later by Episcopal priest John Freeman Young, who is responsible for the version Americans favor. 

2. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"

Penned by James "Haven" Gillespie, this jolly tune was first performed on American singer Eddie Cantor's radio show in 1934. But for all its mirth, its inspiration came from a place of grief. In his book Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Ace Collins explains how Gillespie was a vaudevillian-turned-songwriter who'd fallen on hard times, both financially and personally. Gillespie got the call to pen a Christmas tune for Cantor just after learning his brother had died.

Initially, he rejected the job, feeling too overcome with grief to consider penning a playful holiday ditty. But a subway ride recollecting his childhood with his brother and his mother's warnings that Santa was watching changed his mind. He had the lyrics in 15 minutes, then called in composer John Coots to make up the music that would become a big hit within 24 hours of its debut.

3. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"

The earliest incarnation of this carol was a poem penned in 1739 by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. However, the original opening line as it appeared in his collection Hymns and Sacred Poems was "Hark how all the welkin rings," using a rarely invoked term for heaven. Anglican preacher and Wesley contemporary George Whitefield tweaked the opening line to the titular one we know today.

In these early versions, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" was sung to several different tunes, including "New Britain." The jauntier tempo it's sung to today came from German composer Felix Mendelssohn. More than 100 years after it was written, English musician William H. Cummings paired the carol to Mendelssohn's cantata Fetgesang. While this is the variant that has caught on, it is a development unlikely to be appreciated by Wesley or Mendelssohn. The former believed the hymn was best sung slowly, while the latter was a strictly secular musician.

4. "Deck the Halls"

This jaunty tune dates back to 16th century Wales, where its melody and much of the lyrics were pinched from the New Year's Eve song "Nos Galan." Lines like "Oh! how soft my fair one's bosom/ Fa la la la la la la la la," were transformed into Yuletide wishes like "Deck the halls with boughs of holly/ Fa la la la la la la la la." This musical makeover was done by Scottish folk music scribe Thomas Oliphant, who built his reputation on old melodies with new lyrics. In 1862, his "Deck the Hall" was published in Welsh Melodies, Vol. 2. He'd go on to become a renowned translator of songs as well as a lyricist for the court of Queen Victoria.

But Oliphant's version is not the one most commonly sung today. Now called "Deck the Halls," lines like "Fill the meadcup, drain the barrel," have been swapped for "Don we now our gay apparel." This variant became popular from revised music sheet printings made in 1877 and 1881.

5. "Good King Wenceslas "

This unconventional but beloved carol dates back to 1853 when English hymnwriter John Mason Neale first penned its lyrics. Set to the tune of the 14th-century carol "The Time Is Near For Flowering," "Good King Wenceslas" focuses on the journey of a kind man who set out in terrible weather on the post-Christmas holiday of Saint Stephen's Day to provide aid to poor neighbors.

This titular "king" was a real man, Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, who ruled from 924 to 935, when he was assassinated by his own brother, Boleslav the Cruel. Unlike his nefariously nicknamed sibling, Wenceslaus was adored by his subjects. His great acts of charity led to him posthumously being declared a king, and an eventual upgrade to sainthood. He is now the patron saint to the Czech Republic.

6. "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth"

This saccharine song is sung from the perspective of a child with a simple wish, and a fleet of such children was in fact its inspiration. In 1944, grade school teacher Donald Yetter Gardner and his wife Doris sat down with a group of second-graders in Smithtown, New York, to help them compose a song for Christmas. While there are different versions of the origin, they all involve a bunch of children saying, "All I want for Christmas is…" It's not so much that any students wished for those absent front teeth, but more that Gardner was charmed by their requests hindered by toothless lisping.

As Gardner told it, he went home that night and in just 30 minutes penned the Christmas tune that would earn him royalties until his death in the fall of 2004. A performance at his school of the song led to a meeting with Witmark music company, and ultimately to Spike Jones and his City Slickers recording the ditty in 1948. Gardner gave up his teaching job to become a music consultant and editor, and later remarked in awe of his own success, "I was amazed at the way that silly little song was picked up by the whole country."

7. "Jingle Bells"

Though one of the most popular non-religious Yuletide tunes, "Jingle Bells" was not originally conceived for Christmas time at all. Penned by James Lord Pierpont in 1850s Savannah, Georgia, the song originally titled "The One Horse Open Sleigh" was intended to celebrate Thanksgiving. The local Unitarian church where he'd later play the song on the organ boasts historical markers declaring it the birthplace of "Jingle Bells." However, some sources insist Pierpont was belting the memorable melody as early as 1850, when he still lived in Medford, Massachusetts. Debate still rages about the true birthplace of the song.

"Jingle Bells" was renamed in 1857 when its lyrics and notes were first published. Decades passed before it rose to prominence. Yet it made history on December 16, 1965, becoming the first song broadcast in space. The crew of Gemini 6 followed reports of seeing Santa Claus with an improvised version of "Jingle Bells," which included bells and a harmonica that they had snuck onboard. Mission control responded to the surprise serenade with, "You're too much, 6."

8. "O Tannenbaum "

Commonly translated as "O Christmas Tree," this carol comes from Germany. The earliest version of the song dates back to the 16th century, when Melchior Franck wrote a folk song about the tradition of bringing a small fir tree into one's home to decorate and sit beside the seasonal nativity scene. This decorating tradition and its celebratory song moved from Germany to the U.S. along with its emigrants.

Revisions to the lyrics were made in 1819 by Joachim August Zarnack, and in 1824 by Leipzig organist Ernst Anschütz. As Christmas tree trimming caught on in the 1800s, "O Tannenbaum" grew in popularity. In the past century, the song has been included on countless Christmas albums as well as in such family entertainment as Disney's Swiss Family Robinson, Ernest Saves Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

9. "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

This religious carol tells the tale of the birth of Jesus, and was inspired by a pilgrim's moving Christmas Eve experience in the Holy Lands.

Phillip Brooks was a distinguished man of faith and intellect. A Boston-born Episcopalian preacher, he'd earned a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of Oxford, taught at Yale University, and publicly advocated against slavery during the Civil War. But he's best known for penning "O Little Town of Bethlehem" after a life-changing journey.

In 1865, Brooks rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he participated in the Church of the Nativity's five-hour long Christmas Eve celebration, complete with hymns. Returning home, this experience proved so profound that he channeled it into the song sung in churches to this day. Its first public performance was held three years later, performed by the children's choir of his church on December 27.

10. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

The lyrics to the hopeful yet mournful carol "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" were penned by Hugh Martin for a scene in the 1944 movie musical Meet Me In St. Louis. Judy Garland sings the bittersweet song to her little sister, trying to cheer her up as both lament their family's move away from their hometown. But Garland and director Vincente Minnelli weren't happy with Martin's early, much more maudlin drafts.

These included lines that Martin would later describe as ''hysterically lugubrious," like ''Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last.... Faithful friends who were dear to us/Will be near to us no more.''

Martin initially refused to revise the lyrics, but a talking to from actor Tom Drake set him straight. "He said, 'You stupid son of a b***h!'" Martin recollected, "'You're gonna foul up your life if you don't write another verse of that song!''' Ultimately, Martin gave the song a more hopeful leaning, first for the movie then again in 1957 at the request of Frank Sinatra. For Ol' Blue Eyes, he changed "We'll have to muddle through somehow" to the more jolly "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough." The song has since became a standard, in both forms.

40 Offbeat Holidays to Celebrate in April

Get ready to celebrate Talk Like Shakespeare Day on April 23rd.
Get ready to celebrate Talk Like Shakespeare Day on April 23rd.
YaleShutter/iStock via Getty Images

Spring is in the air, as is the promise of several offbeat holidays—even if you don’t like pranks or chocolate bunnies. Here are 40 of them.

April 2: National Ferret Day

A ferret hanging out on a log
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We'll definitely be celebrating these furry little guys.

April 2: International Children's Book Day

Celebrated since 1967, this holiday takes place on Hans Christian Andersen's birthday.

April 3: Tweed Day

Summer is coming, so dust off your favorite tweed clothing item and get in one last wear before it's crop top and linen season.

April 4: National Tell-A-Lie Day

Honesty is generally the best policy, according to one of our founding fathers. But today, you have carte blanche to fib your heart out.

April 4: International Pillow Fight Day

Have a pillow fight!

April 5: National Deep Dish Pizza Day

Deep fish pizza with candles in it
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A day to appreciate sky-high pies, or argue over the best pizza in all the land.

April 5: Read a Road Map Day

There was a time not so long ago when we had to consult large, folded pieces of paper to figure out directions from point A to point B. Thanks to GPS and Google Maps, this is now practically a holiday of antiquity. But you can’t use a Sharpie to draw a route on your smartphone, so score one for the road map.

April 6: Tartan Day

Show off your Scottish heritage, and grab your kilt while you're at it.

April 6: Sorry Charlie Day

This holiday was inspired by Charlie the Tuna—the cartoon mascot for StarKist and the subject of an advertising campaign that ran until the 1980s. In the spots, Charlie purports to have good taste, and wants to be recruited by the company, but is perpetually rejected via a sign on a fish hook that reads, "Sorry, Charlie." (As the narrator explains, they're interested in tuna that tastes good, not tuna with good taste.) The ads spawned a national catchphrase, and this holiday seeks to recognize all those who have lived through rejection and still retain their spunk.

April 7: International Beaver Day

Ferrets aren't the only small mammals we love here at Mental Floss: International Beaver Day will warrant its own party, too.

April 7: National Beer Day

A group of friends celebrating with beer
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On March 22, 1933, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen–Harrison Act, legalizing the sale of beer (as long as it was 3.2 percent alcohol by weight or less) after many years of Prohibition. The thirsty public had to wait two long weeks before they could legally imbibe again, and on April 7, the law finally went into effect. Beer drinkers around the country rejoiced, and celebrated with a nice cold one, presumably.

April 10: National Siblings Day

Celebrate the brothers and sisters who drive you mad and keep you sane—often all at the same time.

April 11: Barbershop Quartet Day

Consider a musical ode to these fearsome foursomes on their special day of the year.

April 11: International “Louie Louie” Day

"Louie Louie" is, by some accounts, the most recorded rock song in history. (The most famous version was recorded by The Kingsmen in 1963.) This year, celebrate this offbeat holiday by finally figuring out the lyrics.

April 12: National Licorice Day

A pile of black and red licorice
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This offbeat holiday—designed to celebrate black licorice specifically—will surely be a contentious commemoration. For those of you who cringed, please enjoy your Twizzlers.

April 12: Drop Everything and Read Day

Also known as D.E.A.R. Day, this holiday encourages you to abandon all prior commitments for the comfort of a good book. It also coincides with the birthday of children’s book author Beverly Cleary, who is a spokesperson for the event. Though marketed toward children, the celebration is open to everyone.

April 12: Walk On Your Wild Side Day

Whatever “wild” means to you, today's the day to do it.

April 13: National Scrabble Day

A Scrabble game board
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Created by Alfred Mosher Butts in 1938, Scrabble did not become a national phenomenon until the 1950s. It has since inspired less mobility-impaired games like Bananagrams and Words With Friends. But to honor the holiday, use a classic board and show off your robust vocabulary.

April 13: Dyngus Day

According to Buffalo’s official holiday website, “Historically a Polish-American tradition, Dyngus Day celebrates the end of the often restrictive observance of Lent and the joy of Easter.” Some celebratory activities include men chasing around women to drench them with water, and hitting them with pussy willow branches. So basically, Dyngus Day is spring break.

April 14: National Reach as High as You Can Day

National Reach as High as You Can Day is really about grounding yourself in reality. Don’t reach for the stars if you can’t actually touch them—know your limitations. Set attainable goals, and take pleasure in being just good enough.

April 15: National That Sucks Day

It's Tax Day and the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, so yeah, kind of sucky.

April 16: National Stress Awareness Day

Stressed out young woman pulling her hair out in front of a yellow background
iStock.com/SIphotography

Founded on the very cute notion that you are not aware of your stress.

April 16: National High Five Day

Make 'em count today, and don't forget to keep an eye on the elbow.

April 17: National Haiku Poetry Day

Celebrate with your
Own haiku that is likely
Much better than mine.

April 19: National Hanging Out Day

Sadly, this is not a day to kick back and relax with some friends. Rather, it's a holiday encouraging people to hang out their laundry—and cut down on energy consumption by doing so.

April 20: Lima Bean Respect Day

Much like Rodney Dangerfield, the lima bean doesn’t get any respect. Well not today! Did you know lima beans are an excellent source of fiber? They also help balance your blood sugar and lower cholesterol. So give this bean a break and try extolling its more admirable qualities for the day.

April 21: National Library Workers Day

A day to honor the hardworking shushers and Dewey Decimal devotees who help us all on our reading journeys.

April 21: National Bulldogs Are Beautiful Day

A pair of bulldogs pose for a portrait
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If you didn't already know this, you can see yourself out.

April 22: National Jelly Bean Day

When you grab a handful to celebrate this year, just make sure you don't get "BeanBoozled."

April 23: Talk Like Shakespeare Day

We have of late, but wherefore we know not, lost all our mirth. What a perfect day to get it back! In honor of the Bard’s birthday, drop some thous and thees, master iambic pentameter, and cast people away by exclaiming “get thee to a nunnery!” Talk Like Shakespeare Day is the one time of year you can express yourself in rhyming couplets; wethinks thou oughtest useth the opportunity.

April 23: World Book Night

On Shakespeare's birthday passionate volunteers hand out books in the U.S., U.K., Ireland and Germany.

April 24: National Hairball Awareness Day

Don't become a statistic.

April 25: World Penguin Day

Antarctica gentoo penguins fighting
iStock.com/Grafissimo

Seriously, all the animal holidays are fine with us.

April 25: International DNA Day

Unlike many holidays in the Offbeat Family, DNA Day has formal U.S. Congressional recognition. On this day in 1953, scientists first published papers in Nature on the structural makeup of DNA [PDF]. In 2003, the Human Genome Project was declared to be nearly complete; the National Human Genome Research Institute has since developed activities and celebrations to honor the holiday.

April 25: National Go Birding Day

Build bird feeders, bring your binoculars for a walk in the woods, or, if you live in the city, take a little extra time to notice all the pigeons.

April 26: Hug An Australian Day

It does not say they have to be human. Also: Learn some Australian slang while you’re at it.

April 26: National Pretzel Day

The beer is optional.

April 27: Morse Code Day

Wartime Morse Code Communications
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Break out your best dots and dashes, it’s the birthday of Samuel Morse—co-inventor of the eponymous Morse Code. These days any Joe Schmoe can try his hand at transmitting lights, clicks, and tones to send a secret message. But this system of communication used to be a highly specialized field that required a license and a proclivity for spying on communists.

April 30: National Honesty Day

Remember when you celebrated National Tell-A-Lie Day a few weeks ago? Today, do the opposite.

April 30: International Jazz Day

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is responsible for this holiday. Schools, communities, and even government organizations around the world will host programs to highlight the diplomatic role of jazz in bringing people together.

America’s 10 Most Hated Easter Candies

Peeps are all out of cluck when it comes to confectionery popularity contests.
Peeps are all out of cluck when it comes to confectionery popularity contests.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Whether you celebrate Easter as a religious holiday or not, it’s an opportune time to welcome the sunny, flora-filled season of spring with a basket or two of your favorite candy. And when it comes to deciding which Easter-themed confections belong in that basket, people have pretty strong opinions.

This year, CandyStore.com surveyed more than 19,000 customers to find out which sugary treats are widely considered the worst. If you’re a traditionalist, this may come as a shock: Cadbury Creme Eggs, Peeps, and solid chocolate bunnies are the top three on the list, and generic jelly beans landed in the ninth spot. While Peeps have long been polarizing, it’s a little surprising that the other three classics have so few supporters. Based on some comments left by participants, it seems like people are just really particular about the distinctions between certain types of candy.

Generic jelly beans, for example, were deemed old and bland, but people adore gourmet jelly beans, which were the fifth most popular Easter candy. Similarly, people thought Cadbury Creme Eggs were messy and low-quality, while Cadbury Mini Eggs—which topped the list of best candies—were considered inexplicably delicious and even “addictive.” And many candy lovers prefer hollow chocolate bunnies to solid ones, which people explained were simply “too much.” One participant even likened solid bunnies to bricks.

candystore.com's worst easter candies
The pretty pastel shades of bunny corn don't seem to be fooling the large contingent of candy corn haters.
CandyStore.com

If there’s one undeniable takeaway from the list of worst candies, it’s that a large portion of the population isn’t keen on chewy marshmallow treats in general. The eighth spot went to Hot Tamales Peeps, and Brach’s Marshmallow Chicks & Rabbits—which one person christened “the zombie bunny catacomb statue candy”—sits at number six.

Take a look at the full list below, and read more enlightening (and entertaining) survey comments here.

  1. Cadbury Creme Eggs
  1. Peeps
  1. Solid chocolate bunnies
  1. Bunny Corn
  1. Marshmallow Chicks & Rabbits
  1. Chocolate crosses
  1. Twix Eggs
  1. Hot Tamales Peeps
  1. Generic jelly beans
  1. Fluffy Stuff Cotton Tails

[h/t CandyStore.com]

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