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’.