Friday, December 12, 2014

As American As…Christmas Carols

By Kathleen Rice Adams

What would Christmas be without Christmas carols? The tradition of caroling—wherein bands of marauding singers rampage through neighborhoods, doing their best to carry tunes across unsuspecting others’ lawns—has fallen by the wayside, but the carols themselves remain. Many of the most enduring carols arose hundreds of years ago in Europe as religious hymns, but a surprising number were American-made in the mid-1800s.

Evidently, American Christmas carol ingenuity upset the British, who have been doing their deal-level best to sow seeds of confusion ever since.

Here are the most prominent American carols, with titles linked to YouTube renditions. (All audio clips used for illustration are in the public domain.)

Away In A Manger

A 1996 Gallup Poll ranked “Away in a Manger” the second most popular Christmas carol in Britain, but the song was written by a Kentucky lawyer, minister, and composer named Jonathan E. Spilman. More than 41 adaptations of Spilman’s 1837 melody exist. The most popular U.S. version is James R. Murray’s 1887 arrangement; in Britain, William J. Kirkpatrick’s 1895 arrangement—a slight variation of Spilman’s original work—is more popular. The two harmonize so well, though, that many contemporary performances weave them together.



It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts, wrote the lyrics for “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” in 1849. The melody didn’t come along until 1850, when Richard Storrs Willis, who had studied under Felix Mendelssohn, composed a tune he called “Carol.” Willis’s arrangement remains the most widely known in the U.S. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, the British appropriated the lyrics and set them to “Noel,” an 1874 hymn written by Arthur Sullivan. The two songs sound nothing alike.



Jingle Bells

One of the best-known Christmas carols was written to celebrate Thanksgiving. A plaque in the town square in Medford, Massachusetts, commemorates the song’s birth from the pen of James Lord Pierpont inside the Simpson Tavern in 1850. Though Pierpont was a church organist, “Jingle Bells” is one of the few classic carols that was never intended to be a hymn. Instead, the song was inspired by Medford’s popular sleigh races. Of note: The British didn’t tinker with this one.


O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest and Rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, wrote the lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in 1868, three years after visiting the holy city. Church organist Lewis Redner added the melody. Once again the Brits ran off with a perfectly good American carol and made it their own, changing the tune so drastically as to make it unrecognizable. In 1903, British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams adapted the English hymn “Forest Green” from an earlier folk song, and that tune underlies the more popular version in the U.K. (They call the American version “saccharine” and “plodding.” Ingrates.)



We Three Kings of Orient Are

John Henry Hopkins Jr., an Episcopal deacon and music director for the General Theological Seminary in New York City, wrote “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (originally “Three Kings of Orient”) for his students to sing during an elaborate 1857 Christmas pageant. The song gained popularity right away, becoming the first American carol to be embraced internationally in its original form. In fact, “We Three Kings” received the singular honor of publication in Christmas Carols Old and New, a prestigious and influential collection of carols published during the 1870s in the U.K. Even then, the Brits couldn’t resist fiddling: Although Christmas Carols acknowledged the song’s parentage, the editors flipped the order of two verses.


All of these carols would have been familiar in the Old West. Imagine cowboys riding night herd and serenading the dogies with these ditties. They very well may have done exactly that.

Wherever you are and however you celebrate, I wish you a merry holiday season filled with joy and peace.


  1. Thanks, Kathleen, for your interesting (as usual) post. I love listening to Christmas carols.

  2. Me too, Caroline. Merry Christmas to you and yours! :-)

  3. Loved these. I do hope the British don't declare war on us for the statements...but what is said, is said, and cannot be unsaid.
    I listened to all of these, and thanks for finding them!
    Merry Christmas!

  4. Fortunately, the British typically have a very good sense of humor, Celia. (And none of this would have happened had they not messed with American Christmas carols in the first place. ;-) )

    Merry Christmas back to you!

  5. Since I rambled on at another site, I'll just say great post as always, Tex.


  6. LOL, Rustler! You should have mentioned that carol here, as well. Sadly, I left out "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote as a poem on Christmas Day 1863, after his son was severely wounded in a Civil War battle. His wife had died in a fire a short time earlier. Longfellow wrote the poem out of both despair and hope. Not until 1872 were the words set to music, and then by an English organist. So, unlike several of the others on the list, the British got to the music first.

    Thanks for reminding me about all of that, Rustler. :-)

    Merry Christmas to y'all up there in WYO!

  7. What an entertaining blog, Kathleen. I like that you actually put the tunes there for us to listen to.
    I can well imagine cowboys out there in the cold of night singing these carols to the cattle.
    I certainly cannot imagine the Brits singing these carols to their cattle--or maybe they did for sheep, but no, I can't imagine that either. I don't know, I just see them singing their carols at a piano or over a cup of tea. The English Rose is probably going to ding me for saying that.
    I hope you have a lovely Christmas season, Kathleen.

  8. You know, Sarah, I asked Jill McDonald-Constable (the English Rose) about all this petty thievery (sarcasm, people!) this morning, and this is what she said: "...the Brits were a bit paranoid about taking on board anything too American, And many of 'em still are!"

    So there you have it -- straight from the keyboard of a Brit. Did she apologize on behalf of her countrymen? No. :-D

    Have a wonderful Christmas in your corner of the world, too, Sarah. :-)

  9. Very interesting post, Kathleen, since I spent a chunk of the morning researching Xmas carols and hymns for an upcoming worship service. I know all if these versions--didn't know the history behind them. Thanks! Merry Christmas!!!

  10. Tracy, if anyone would know Christmas carols, it's you. I'd love to be there for the service, just to hear the music you've put together.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours! :-)


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.