How old do you think the oldest Christmas carol is?
Maybe a hymn from medieval France, 14th century perhaps? Or could it be the 12th century, during the golden age of Catholicism in Europe? Or the 13th century, the time of St. Francis of Assisi, who helped popularize Christmas caroling?
Maybe older…perhaps there are some Celtic hymns from the 8th or 9th centuries.
Not even close.
Three hymns are nearly always brought up during this conversation: Jesus refulsit omnium by St. Hilary of Poitiers; Veni redemptor gentium by St. Ambrose; and Corde natus ex parentis by poet Aurelius Prudentius.
All of them date from the 4th century.
Since Prudentius (348 AD – 405 AD) was only twenty when Hilary (315 AD – 368 AD) died, his hymn is not likely the oldest. So it comes down to the two Doctors, Hilary and Ambrose.
Ambrose (340 AD – 397 AD) is enough of a contemporary of Hilary to offer stiff competition for the oldest carol. It might be a photo finish.
A dark horse has come charging in from the back of the pack, and has asserted itself as far older than either of these compositions.
Gloria in Excelsis Deo! is the joyful name of our new contender.
Ah yes. In all our studying and comparison of names and dates, we forgot who sang the first Christmas hymn.
It was the angels, on Christmas night, and we have at least some of the lyrics in the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke: Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, the angels sang. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of good will.
Well, it’s hard to argue with that!
The words of the first Christmas hymn are encapsulated not only in some of the most popular carols we hear today—Angels We Have Heard on High and Ding Dong Merrily On High—it is also part of the Holy Mass which we hear year ‘round. So it can also claim the title of the most-frequently-sung carol.
Well, it’s an upset. The angels win.
Since we will have to wait until Heaven to really hear the angels sing, a good substitute is a recording of angelic Christmas chants by some of the best chanters out there. Sancta Nox is a new release by the seminarians of St. Peter’s Seminary in Wigratzbad, Germany. In the majestic confines of a 12th-century abbey, they have recorded Christmas Matins—with both Gregorian chant and polyphonic numbers included—and a multilingual rendition of Silent Night. A piece of heaven to bring to your Christmas celebrations! Available now at The Catholic Company!