So, Where Did Christmas Music Come From, Anyway?

play Christmas music on the piano

My wife, Erin, and I recently discussed our favorite Christmas music.

Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Nat King Cole are among the top singers we listen to each Christmas.

After listening to Sinatra sing several amazing Christmas arrangements, my wife asked a serious question to which she knew I could answer.

(I AM the music professional, of course.)

“How did Christmas music originate?”

“Ummm… Let me get back to you on that one,” I said.

I didn’t know the answer.


What about you? Have you ever wondered how Christmas music originated?

I’m not talking about Joy to the World or Angels We Have Heard on High.

These are great hymns, of course. But their history lies more in the Western Classical tradition.

I’m talking about secular Christmas songs like Jingle Bells, Up On the Housetop, and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.

These were the songs that inspired Irving Berlin and Johnny Marks to pen songs like White Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Erin’s question inspired me to do a bit of research and blog about the history of classic secular Christmas songs.

So, here’s what I’ve found.

Jingle Bells

Did you know that Jingle Bells was a favorite drinking song at parties? That’s right! People would jingle the ice in their glasses as they sang.

Without a doubt, it is one of the most popular Christmas songs. Especially among children. I mean, have you ever had a child not request this song around the holidays?

Composed by James Lord Pierpont and published under the title One Horse Open Sleigh in the Autumn of 1857, Jingle Bells wasn’t originally intended as a Christmas song.

Some suggest that the tune may have been composed for a Sunday school choir. But this is often disputed due to the racy lyrics.

Jingle Bells, racy?

Perhaps… I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Up On the Housetop

Another Christmas classic, heralded as the second oldest secular Christmas song only second to Jingle Bells, is Up On the Housetop.

It’s author, Benjamin Russell Hanby, was a pastor. But he had a difficult time in the church due to his views on music in church services, the teaching of children, and opposition to slavery (www.hymnofchristmas.com).

It’s interesting to note that historians are not entirely sure if the opening lyric sings “reindeer paws” or “reindeer pause.”

But as with most old hymns and songs, Up On the Housetop boasts several stanzas. All of which one can mix and match to fit the occasion.

The song was first performed by Hanby’s children’s chorus in 1864, just three years before he yielded to tuberculosis.

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas

Many attribute Jolly Old Saint Nicholas to Hamby, the composer of the preceding tune, Up On the Housetop. But it’s an uncertain attribution.

The song may have originated from a poem by Emily Huntington Miller. It’s often performed to a melody composed by James Lord Pierpont, the composer of Jingle Bells.

Isn’t it fascinating how the composers and lyricists of this era worked together and used one another’s material?

Composers always have and will continue to collaborate in this way.

This is interesting.

Did you know that Saint Nicholas was a real historical figure?

Yep, sure was!

He lived almost 1,700 years ago and serving as a bishop in the early church in Myra, a city in modern-day Turkey.

CBN News recounts one story of Saint Nicholas –

[…] a man with three daughters fell on hard times. He didn’t have enough money for a dowry for any of his daughters, so they couldn’t marry. Legend has it that Nicholas secretly visited the family at night, dropping a bag of gold through the window.

There are many other stories of the generosity of Saint Nicholas – particularly to children.

However, Nicholas always insisted that no credit be given to him – but to God only.

So there you have it – just a brief bit of history behind some of the most beloved Christmas music ever composed!

Maybe you have something to add. Maybe you need to set me straight on something! Or maybe you’d like to share a story.

By all means, please leave a comment below.

And, Merry Christmas!!