Christmas music has a long and storied history beginning centuries ago with pagan rituals. Those traditions evolved with St. Francis of Assisi’s Nativity plays in the 13th century, and survived Puritan rule when many Christmas traditions and celebrations were banned during part of the 17th century.
Traveling minstrels spread original songs before the invention of the printing press in 1440 ushered in an era of texts that served as the foundation for some of the most beloved Christmas songs. These tunes would be shared in the form of poetry and hymns printed on broadsides. Today, Christmas music runs the gamut from silly to revolutionary. Songs range from grandmothers getting trampled by reindeer to those based on the work of a Romantic-period poet. Who knew that the catchy tune of Wenceslas, the king with the funny name, is a reverent song about the patron saint of the Czech Republic? Or perhaps it would surprise readers to discover that “Silent Night” was designated as an item of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
These songs we know by heart and hear so often have rich histories rooted in things like war, religion, social reform and slavery. Stacker compiled a list of Christmas songs released before 1920 and explored the origins of these pieces. This list includes Christmas carols, famous instrumentals, popular hymns and spirituals from countries around the world. Many of these songs were created out of a chance collaboration between artists spanning time and space; a clergyman pens a hymn, and years later, a composer resurrects those words and sets them to a melody.
It may come as no surprise, then, that what people consider to be Christmas classics are among the most-covered Christmas songs of all time. “Silent Night,” for example, had 137,315 recordings according to a 2017 Billboard report.