Christmas carols have been part of the festive period for centuries, with the first known Christmas carol dating back to the fourth century. Harry Christophers shares his favourite old carols.


You may also enjoy our rundowns of the best Christmas songs ever, and the best Christmas songs for children.

Old Christmas carols

1. Verbum caro (Plainchant)

The unison sound of this florid chant, a respond for Mass on Christmas Day, is so evocative; plainsong is, after all, the basis for so much music of the Renaissance.

2. Make we joy now in this fest (Seldon manuscript, c1450)

The original meaning of carol was ‘round dance’, and from here evolves the Medieval carol. It consists of a burden (chorus) which alternates with verses sung by one or more solo voices. There is no better example of that dance structure than here.

3. Richard Pygott: Quid petis, o fili?

Pygott’s macaronic (mixed-language) poem with its mixture of sacred and profane takes the listener back to medieval forms, yet his clever use of imitative polyphony turns a delightful text into quite exquisite music.

4. Jean Mouton: Nesciens mater

Mouton gives us much more than a technical feat (a quadruple canon over a plainchant melody). This is without doubt one of the finest Renaissance motets for the Christmas season – slow moving harmonies, subtly controlled, yet rich in ideas.

5. Thomas Tallis: Puer natus mass

Written not only to celebrate Mass on Christmas Day but also to honour Queen Mary’s (mistaken) belief that she was pregnant, the seven-voice texture of this carol is so sonorous and inventive that there can be no better celebration to the birth of our Lord.

We named Thomas Tallis one of the best Renaissance composers

Harry Christophers (2008)


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