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How To... Navigate British Christmas carols

Lily Martin
Last Updated: 17 July 2021 • 3 min read

The British have made an art out of carols around the festive season. 

As an important part of not only the religious season but also the cultural tradition of the UK, carols are a unique and fascinating insight into a British Christmas.

Here, we will explore where they first came from, which ones are the most popular, and the weird British tradition surrounding them.

The history of Christmas carols in Britain

Christmas carols have a long and illustrious history in Britain.

Although in much of the Western world the word carol is immediately associated with Christmas, its roots are actually found in the French word ‘caroler’ meaning a song to accompany dancing. The old-English form, ‘carole’ actually meant to dance.

Carols of one form or another actually existed in Europe as far back as the 14th century. However it wasn’t until the late Middle-Ages that it became associated with Christmas.

The famous church service of Nine Lessons and Carols, now found across the country each Christmas, was originally established in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, in 1880.  It was then adopted and developed by King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University.

In 1928, the publication of the Oxford Book of Carols cemented the popularity of carols to the British public. Today they are an integral part of the Advent and Christmas season here in the UK.

Which Christmas carols are the most popular in the UK?

Christmas carols are heard in shops, on adverts and sung in the streets and family kitchens all through the festive period. But which ones are the UK’s favourites?

A survey by ClassicFM in 2019 found that these were the most popular.

  1. O Holy Night
  2. Silent Night
  3. In the Bleak Mid-Winter (Holst)
  4. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
  5. O Come All Ye Faithful
  6. In the Bleak Mid-Winter (Darke)
  7. Carol of the Bells
  8. Once in Royal David’s City
  9. O Little Town of Bethlehem
  10. Joy to the World

So what are British Christmas carols actually about?

British Christmas carols are a combination of local songs from counties across the country and tunes adapted from other songs from Europe and scriptures. 

For example, ‘Deck the Halls’, and ‘The First Noel’, were written and sung in Wales and Cornwall respectively. Now they are two of the best known carols nationally.

Some carols were written with important festive themes in mind. ‘The Holly and The Ivy’ is laced with symbolism about greenery at Christmas, which stems from the pagan tradition which is thousands of years old.

Others incorporate themes like charity to the poor, like ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and the religious symbolism of the season, like ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’.

The majority of British Christmas carols are very old and are part of a rich tradition in the UK. You will find them sung across the country, both in and out of churches during the month of December.


Want to know more about how to master a British Christmas as an international student? Check out our article here!

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Lily Martin
Written By
Lily Martin

Lily is a Content Writer and Editor based in Manchester, UK. She is passionate about travel, literature and higher education.

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