People and Genres

32 Christmas Carols

In this chapter you will

  • learn about the music associated with the Christian celebration of Christmas, the holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus
  • consider how traditions of biblical interpretation and the popularity of these songs have influenced one another and continue to do so

Christmas carols are songs of a religious character associated with the celebration of the Christian holiday of Christmas, which focuses on the birth of Jesus. This holiday is celebrated on December 25 by Roman Catholics and thus also by Protestants, since Protestantism emerged from Catholicism. Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the holiday on January 7. Neither date is indicated in the Bible, and the difference reflects a historical use of two different calendars, Gregorian and Julian. Many churches also consider the weeks before Christmas the season of Advent. Historically, Western churches also recognize twelve days of Christmas, beginning on Christmas and ending with Epiphany on January 6, which focuses on the arrival of the magi. Christmas carols provide another opportunity not only to consider the connection between music and the celebration of holidays but also to see how music influences people’s interpretation of the text. Song lyrics of course reflect the interpretation of their author, but they may in turn communicate that interpretation to others. For example, the very idea that Jesus was actually born on December 25 (rather than this being a date chosen by Christians to celebrate the event) is communicated and reinforced by the many songs that say “Christ was born today” or something similar. In the same way, songs like “Away in a Manger” (with its line “the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”) and “Silent Night” convey the impression of the birth being a serene and reverent event, which is not typically the case when it comes to human childbirth and is not supported by anything in the Bible.

Christmas carols continue to be written, even as many favorites of the past continue to be familiar and are sometimes given new arrangements and adaptations. Most of the carols that continue to be heard and sung regularly are from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the oldest that is still very familiar is “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks,” which dates from 1700. Jeremy Dibble, a professor of Musicology at Durham University, discovered while doing research on the history of hymns that “‘While shepherds watched’ was the first carol to cross over from secular traditions to the church. It was the only Christmas hymn to be approved by the Church of England in the eighteenth century and this allowed it to be disseminated across the country with the Book of Common Prayer. Only at the end of the eighteenth century was it joined by other well-known texts such as ‘Hark the herald angels sing.’”[1] The lyrics by Nahum Tate stick closely to the narrative in Luke chapter 2, and this is probably one reason it was quickly accepted for use in church. The words have been sung to a number of melodies, including some written specifically for that purpose, including famously by George Frideric Handel.

The carol “Adam Lay Ybounden” is from about three centuries earlier than “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.” As a result, the English lyrics require translation to be understood today even by a native English speaker, since the language has changed and evolved over the past six hundred years, just as musical language has. Its reference to Adam having eaten an apple reflects a long-standing tradition about the type of fruit produced by the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, whereas Genesis doesn’t specify this. The idea of Mary becoming heaven’s queen is likewise postbiblical. The song’s overall conclusion that it was a good thing that the forbidden fruit was taken because of what ultimately resulted will surprise many modern listeners. Here is John Rutter, whose work as a composer was the focus of the previous chapter, conducting the Cambridge Singers.[2]

“The First Noel” combines the shepherds tending their sheep from the Gospel of Luke with the wise men and the star from the Gospel of Matthew. This is common in Christmas pageants as well as music, but it obscures the fact that significant differences exist between the two accounts. They are, at the very least, set at different times in the childhood of Jesus, and a careful look at the details, such as the geographical movements of the family, suggests they may be impossible to harmonize. Musical treatments, on the other hand, make doing so appear quite simple. The song also states that there were three wise men, another detail not actually found in the Bible. In order to convey a more culturally appropriate sense of the story in Luke’s Gospel, New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey created a Christmas drama called Open Hearts in Bethlehem. In all these examples, you can see how Christmas carols spread and perpetuate frameworks of interpretation that impact how stories in the Bible are perceived and understood by those who read them at any point during the year, not merely at Christmas.

For Further Reading

Bailey, Kenneth. “The Manger and the Inn: A Middle Eastern View of the Birth Story of Jesus.” Presbyterian Outlook, December 21, 2006,

———. “The Manger and the Inn: The Cultural Background of Luke 2:7.” Theological Review of the Near East School of Theology 2, no. 2 (1979): 33–44.

Larsen, Timothy, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Christmas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Whiteley, Sheila, ed. Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.


  1. Jeremy Dibble, quoted in “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks on ‘Ilkley Moor,’” Durham University News, December 15, 2009, Dibble said: “'While,the Book of Common Prayer.
  2. Performance by John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers of Boris Ord’s arrangement of “Adam Lay Ybounden.” Shared by John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers on their own YouTube channel.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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