The Meanings Behind Popular Christmas Songs

Many of the most infamous holiday songs have lesser known, fascinating stories behind them.


photo by Jess Daninhirsch

Holiday songs are an essential part of the season, and they all have unique stories.

Michaela Golik, Staff Writer

We’re all familiar with the classic Christmas carols constantly played on the radio, in stores, and in holiday movies. But do you know the true meanings and origins behind some of the most popular ones? Many catchy Christmas songs have fascinating histories.

“Silent Night”

The common story behind this song follows Father Joseph Mohr of Oberndorf, Austria. He was determined to have music at his Christmas Eve service, despite the broken organ at his church. His solution was to write a poem and ask his friend, Franz Gruber, to compose a piece that would not require an organ. However, the real story states that a Catholic priest wrote the poem while stationed at a church in Mariapfarr, Austria. He then asked Gruber to write guitar music to go with the poem. The two performed it on Christmas Eve 1818 with the help of the church’s choir. 40 years later, the song was translated into English.

“Jingle Bells”

Arguably one of the most popular holiday songs, “Jingle Bells” wasn’t even originally written for Christmas time. James Lord Pierpont wrote it in the 1850s, and it was originally titled “The One Horse Open Sleigh.” It was meant to be a Thanksgiving song until it grew in popularity as a Yuletide tune. The song was renamed “Jingle Bells” in 1857 after revision to the lyrics and notes. On December 16, 1965, it became the first song played in outer space. The crew of Gemini 6 played the song with bells and a harmonica that they had snuck onboard.

“12 Days of Christmas”

Most historians and Christmas carol enthusiasts agree that this song began as a memory game. As the list of objects or animals increases with each verse, one must pay attention to everything mentioned previously in the list. One line of the song mentions “a partridge in a pear tree.” While the English partridge is typically found in fields, the French partridge is more likely to be found in trees. The French word for partridge is “perdix,” which is pronounced “pere-dree.” Sounds an awful lot like “pear tree,” right? It makes many wonder if the lyric is just a misunderstood French word or if the partridge really was supposed to be in a pear tree.

“Good King Wenceslas”

This Christmas carol dates back to 1853, when English hymn writer John Mason Neale wrote the original lyrics. It was set to the 14th-century tune “The Time Is Near For Flowering.” The song “Good King Wenceslas” follows the journey of a man who helped his poor neighbors despite the treacherous weather. The king mentioned in the title refers to Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia from 924 to 935. His subjects adored him because he gave alms to the poor and helped those who were in prison or affected by other difficulties. His brother, Boleslav the Cruel, assassinated him due to his jealousy. Because of Wenceslaus’s kindness and charity, he was declared the patron saint of the Czech Republic.

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town”

Written by James “Haven” Gillespie, this tune was first performed on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in 1934. The inspiration for the song came from Gillespie’s grief for his brother. Shortly after learning of his brother’s death, Gilliespie got a call from Cantor, asking him to write a Christmas song for the show. At first, Gillespie rejected the job, feeling overwhelmed with grief and knowing he would not be able to write a cheerful Christmas tune. However, he changed his mind after recalling a childhood memory of his brother and mother warning him that Santa was watching. Feeling inspired, he wrote the lyrics in about 15 minutes and got John Coots to compose the music. Within 24 hours of its debut, the song was already a big hit.

“O Christmas Tree” / “O Tannenbaum”

This classic tune comes from Germany, and the earliest version of the song dates back to the 16th century. Melchoir Franck wrote it as a folk song about the tradition of bringing a Christmas tree into your home and decorating it. The song, along with the tradition of decorating trees, came to the U.S. through German immigrants. Revisions to the lyrics were made in 1819, by Joachim August Zarnack, and in 1824, by Ernst Anschütz. As the tradition became more popular in the U.S., “O Tannenbaum” also became a well-known carol. The song’s success is shown through its usage in many Christmas albums and movies, such as A Charlie Brown Christmas.

“The Holly and the Ivy”

This carol, believed to date back to the 17th century, was based on an English folk tune. However, the symbolism in its lyrics dates back even earlier. During the festivals of Saturnalia and Yule, the Romans would exchange holly and ivy with their friends. The red holly berry symbolizes Jesus’s blood, while the white holly flower represents his shroud. Some people think the lyrics may contain even more symbolism, such as the holly representing masculinity and the ivy being femininity. This theory is rooted in the English tradition of courting games.