Every country that celebrates Christmas has its own music to go with it. Take a musical tour of traditions around the globe with our World of Carols playlist.
Spain - Chiquirriquitin
Spanish Christmas carols are called “villancicos”. During the 15th century, the villancico was a form of a popular song sung by the accompaniment of the vihuela, a guitar-shaped lute. It was incorporated into the Christmas liturgy and gained popularity in the 17th century, but a later decline in the popularity of these songs lead to a change in the word’s meaning, and today the term commonly refers only to Christmas carols. “Chiquirriquitin” translates from Spanish as “Oh, The Poor, Little Baby Boy”, and tells the story of the birth of the baby Jesus.
Italy - Quanno nascette Nínno
Also known as “Canzone D'l Zampognari” (“Song of the Bagpipers”), this was the only Italian song that to be included in the original Oxford Book of Carols. The authorship of this Neapolitan song belongs to the 18th century Holy Bishop St. Alfonso Maria de' Liguori, and it was sung during Christmas by mountain shepherds in the southern Italy and Sicily. Even Handel couldn’t resist the beauty of the song: there are certain similarities between “Quanno nascette Nínno” (which he might have heard in Rome as a young man) and the aria “He shall feed his flock” from “Messiah”.
Ukraine - Shchedryk
Ukrainians follow the Orthodox Julian Calendar, and their Christmas Eve celebrations fall on January 6th. During that night children dress up as different animals and magical creatures, and go around the neighbourhood singing typical Christmas carols called “shchedrivki”. When all the singing is done, everyone gathers for a 12-course dinner with their families! In 1916, Mykola Leontovich composed “Shchedryk” – one of the world’s most famous Christmas carols. Known as “Carol of Bells”, the English version of the song was written by Peter Wilhousky, and first performed at Carnegie Hall in 1921.
England - Good King Wenceslas
This Christmas carol was composed on a base of a traditional folk tune. “Good King Wenceslas” tells the story of a king of Bohemia who travels a long way through severe winter weather to bring food to a poor farmer on Boxing Day. The text was written by the Czech poet Václav Alois Svoboda, and despite the carol’s virtuous narrative, the real events of Duke Wenceslas’ life were barely as positive as anything described in the song. He took over the reign of Bohemia when he was 18 and had to defeat several invasions of his dukedom, and at the age of 22 died by the hand of his jealous brother on the way to church.
Sweden - Sankta Lucia
Sweden has a special tradition of celebrating St. Lucia's Day, which falls on December 13th and marks the beginning of the Christmas festival. The legend says that Lucia was a Christian martyr who brought food to those hiding in the catacombs, and was killed by the Romans for her religious beliefs. Lucia wears a white dress and a candle-lit wreath on her head during a procession, while her handmaidens sing traditional Christmas songs carrying candles in their hands.
Germany - Laßt uns froh und munter sein
“Let's be glad and full of cheer” is a 19th century carol from Hunsrück, the Rhineland region, traditionally performed on the eve of Saint Nicholas Day. Saint Nicholas represents an old man who gave small secret gifts to well-behaved children on December 6th.
Ireland- The Wexford Carol
Also known as "The Enniscorthy Carol", it's one of the oldest Christmas songs in the world and is believed to have originated in the 12th century (though there is some dispute over the accuracy of this historical fact.) The traditional version of the song is in English, which was later translated into Irish Gaelic. This carol celebrates the nativity of Jesus Christ and used to be sung by men, but of course nowadays there are a lot of outstanding recordings made by female artists.
Finland - Joulun Kellot
Straight from the homeland of Santa, the Finnish song “Joulun kellot” translates as “The Bells of Christmas”. Not as old as some other carols on the playlist, this song was composed in 1914 by Armas Maasalo on the basis of a poem by Helmi Auvinen. The text was written in 1899 and was originally published in a Christmas magazine for children. Another important attribute of the Christmas celebrations in Finland is a typical puff pastry with prune jam in the shape of a Bethlehem star.
France - Un Flambeau, Jeannette, Isabella
This 17th century carol from the Provence region of France was originally used for the dancing events of the French nobility. These days "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella" is usually performed by children dressed as milkmaids and shepherds on the way to the Midnight Mass.
Russia - Kolyada Prishla
The term "koliada" exists in all slavic cultures and represents a pre-Christian Slavic winter solstice festival, with different games and song rituals. This name can also refer to a Slavic pagan God – the newborn Sun.
Nowadays it represents the celebrations around Christmas. Similarly to the Ukrainian tradition, groups of children – koledari – visit houses singing Christmas carols and sifting grains around, recieving sweets or money in return.