Which countries have Christmas carols as a tradition – and which are the best …


December 17, 2021, 2:31 PM

Christmas carols in Ryazan, Russia.

Image: Getty

Walk away for a moment, “Good King Wenceslas” and “Holly and Ivy”. We go around the world by sleigh to discover the Christmas carol traditions of different nations …

Oh, this is the most wonderful time of year… thanks in large part to the Christmas music.

Nothing like getting together and singing or hearing Christmas carols to create festive feelings.

Singing traditional songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus has been a midwinter tradition in the UK for centuries, since Christian Christmas carols evolved from even older pagan winter solstice songs to mark the season.

And where Christianity is observed elsewhere in the world, rich and diverse Christmas carol traditions have arisen and evolved apart from the original English tradition. Let’s go explore.

Read more: Why do we sing Christmas carols?

Which countries sing Christmas carols?

Christmas is above all a religious holiday, marking the birth of Jesus Christ in Christianity. But it is also a wider cultural festival, observed in 160 countries in the world – by Christians and non-Christians.

As a result, Christmas carols are sung in many countries, including England, Ireland and Wales; the United States and Canada; countries of South America; many European countries, including Germany, Spain, Greece, Croatia and the Czech Republic; Russia; and African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Malawi.

The only countries that do not observe christmas as public holidays are Afghanistan, China (except Hong Kong and Macao), Iran, Israel, Japan, Laos, Mongolia, Morocco, North Korea, Pakistan, Qatar, Arabia Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.

The Salvation Army plays Christmas carols in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Salvation Army plays Christmas carols in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Image: Alamy

What are the different Christmas carol traditions observed around the world?

In Britain, Christmas carols are a central part of the Christmas celebration for many. From late November or early December until Christmas Day, Christmas carols are sung in schools and church services – including the traditional service of the nine lessons and carols – and in indoor and outdoor public spaces, including by singers going door to door to collect money for charity as part of the festive pastime. The Celtic nations of Wales and Ireland have their own native Christmas carols.

In the United States and Canada, the English tradition of Christmas carols has been adopted, with many Christians and non-Christians singing Christmas carols to celebrate Christmas. Many well-known Christmas carols, including ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ and ‘Away In A Manger’ have their own versions with different melodies in America, and the famous ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ is an American song, written by the American Pastor Edmund Sears.

Australia, being a country in the southern hemisphere, is filled with people chanting on the “dark in the middle of winter” the week before Christmas, while outside it is around 40 degrees centigrade. Australian composers approached this rather surreal and unusual holiday and composed new Christmas carols that reflect the Australian landscape in summer. Songs like “A Christmas Day” and “The Three Drovers” reflect Australia’s dusty red landscape in midsummer and the air “dry with summer heat”.

Read more: “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” is the perfect song for teaching music theory

In Greece and Cyprus, it is traditional for children to go out and sing Christmas carols on Christmas Eve, New Years Eve and Epiphany Eve (January 5). Singers wear metallic triangles to accompany their festive songs, which celebrate the holiday while praising the women, men and children of the households they visit. Much like a “trick or treat” on Halloween, singing children usually ask for a treat in exchange for the promise that they will return the following year to complete their musical wishes.

Accompanying the importation of Christianity, the Christmas musical traditions of many African nations are reminiscent of those historically observed in Britain. In Malawi, children go door to door singing Christmas carols and playing Christmas music on traditional instruments in exchange for cash donations. And in Zambia, churches host nativity scenes and people gather to sing Christmas carols in the streets.

Many African countries have also adopted the tradition of observing midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and in The Gambia, communities hold joyful parades after the Christmas Eve church service. Locals march through the streets with bamboo lanterns shaped like houses and boats, and continue to party until late into the night.

Read more: How to listen to the Classic FM Christmas playlist

What are the best international Christmas carols?

People and cultures around the world have contributed to the canon of traditional Christmas carols. Here are some of the best …

  1. Suo Gân (Lullaby) – Wales

    Across the border with England, Welsh Carols have many of their own Welsh Christmas carols. Traditional songs sung at Christmas include this wonderful lullaby, the melody of which is also used for Christmas hymns like “As the Winter Days Grow Longer” and “Christ Before Us”.

  2. Campana Sobre Campana (The Bells of Bethlehem) – Spain

    A popular Christmas carol in Spain and countries in South America, this Christmas carol hails from Andalusia and sings the bells that ring in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. Bethlehem is “Belén” in Spanish, and the word is used to create a sense of rhythm in the song.

  3. Stille Nacht (Silent Night) – Germany

    The English version of this sublime German song is well known as ‘Silent Night’. It was composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber and lyricist Joseph Mohr, and translated into English in 1859.

    Read more: The 30 greatest Christmas carols of all time

  4. Sankta Lucia (song of Santa Lucia) – Sweden

    “Santa Lucia” is a charming Christmas song for children from the cold latitudes of Northern Europe. December 13 is the feast of Saint Lucia in Sweden, and each city votes to crown its own Saint Lucia, who wears a wreath of candles and brings bright light and songs to homes and workplaces, accompanied by ‘a choir of girls dressed in white with a red belt.

  5. Musevisa (The Mouse Song) – Norway

    “The Mouse Song” is a modern Christmas carol, composed by Alf Prøysen in 1946. Prøysen was commissioned by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation to write the song, and he put his lyrics to a traditional Norwegian folk tune.

  6. He came on a midnight light – United States

    ‘It Came Upon’ is a dignified and melodious Christmas carol, with lyrics by Massachusetts pastor Edmund Sears. The most common musical framework for Sears’ vocals was adapted from an 1874 melody by English composer Arthur Sullivan.

  7. Go Say It On The Mountain – United States

    The African American community has its own rich tradition of Christmas carols and spiritual carols that celebrate the birth of Jesus. “Go Tell it on the Mountain” was compiled by John Wesley around 1865, and since then it has been recorded and performed extensively by gospel singers. Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer added the witty “Go Down Moses” phrase “let me people go” to the song to make “Go Tell it on the Mountain” a hymn for the civil rights movement. 1960s and beyond.

  8. Christmas na Kimangu (Christmas Mystery) – Kenya

    This is an upbeat and joyful celebration of the birth of Jesus, with brilliant guitar designs and vibrant East African rhythms.

  9. Pasko Na Naman (It’s Christmas Again) – Philippines

    ‘It’s Christmas Time Again’ is one of the most popular Filipino Christmas songs, composed by Felipe Padilla de Leon and arranged by George Hernandez. “It’s Christmas again, as time flies, Christmas past, seems like yesterday …” sings the beautiful song.


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