A sparkler firecracker.
Photo: Andrew Zuckerman

A Renowned British Composer Explains Four Legendary Christmas Songs

By Aileen Kwun
December 21, 2019
2 minute read

Andrew Gant, a British composer, singer, Oxford University lecturer, and the author of Christmas Carols: From Village Green to Church Choir (Profile Books), shares a sampling of classic Christmas songs and elaborates on their surprising folk origins.

“White Christmas” (1942), Irving Berlin

“Songwriter Irving Berlin has a fascinating backstory: Born Israel Baline in tsarist Russia, his family fled to America where he went on to become one of the first, and most successful, creators of the Great American Songbook. This song typifies his clever but direct style of melody and ability to match words and music—it also gave Bing Crosby his biggest hit.”

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” (18th Century)

“Many Christmas ‘carols’ are really just party songs, mixing images from pre-Christian history with folk songs, imagery of life and death, and all sorts of other things. This one has its share of nonsense elements: The partridge, for a start, lives on the ground. Could it be a mispronounced variant of the French word for a partridge, ‘un perdrix’? Maybe. A version of the song appeared in France around about the same time as the first printed English version.”

Corelli Christmas Concerto (1714), Arcangelo Corelli

“Roman Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli wrote instrumental pieces to conjure up a devotional mood as part of services in the ornate churches and chapels of Rome. This wonderful piece contains a typical flowing movement based on the rhythms and melodies of the pifferari, the shepherds playing their pipes in the hills above Naples. It’s a reference used by many composers of the time to capture the spirit of Christmas (the brief instrumental ‘pifa’ in Handel’s Messiah is another example).”

“O Come, All Ye Faithful” (1744)

“This popular tune is actually based on a Catholic hymn transcribed by an Englishman fleeing persecution in France, with words from a translation of a Latin hymn by several English poets and clerics. The song has been associated with all sorts of things—including Bonnie Prince Charlie, Portugal, and Benedictine monks. Despite its mongrel heritage, nothing quite says Christmas like the famous last verse.”