When was the first Christmas carol?

The first version of a Christmas carol was written in the fourth century, says Jeremy Pound

What is the oldest Christmas carol?

Though Christmas carols as we know and sing them today didn’t really catch on until the mid-19th century, the first ever festive lyrics to be set to music would appear to date all the way back to the fourth century. This is believed to be the oldest known Christmas carol.

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Christmas Day itself has been marked as a day of celebration in the calendar since 336 AD, and it is in the decades after this that the Christian poet Prudentius (348-405) wrote the hymn ‘Corde natus ex parentis’.

Prudentius – or Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, to give him his full name – was an influential Roman statesman who lived in northern Spain, where he practised law and was regional governor. He turned his attention fully towards Christianity towards the end of his life, writing and collecting hymns.

And if you have a bent for Latin, you will have already spotted that Prudentius’s words still appear in carol services today – ‘Corde natus ex parentis’ translates (roughly) as ‘Of the Father’s heart begotten’.

You can find lyrics to your favourite Christmas carols 

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About Jeremy Pound

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s acting editor, having initially joined the magazine as deputy editor in August 2004. Before that he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book A former chorister at New College, Oxford, he later returned to the same university to study classics. Choral music remains a particular passion, as do early 20th-century English composers.