Do all countries around the world sing Christmas carols?

12 December 2023, 13:51

Singing carols during the ceremony to turn on the lights of Trafalgar Square’s Christmas Tree, gifted by the Norwegian city of Oslo
Singing carols during the ceremony to turn on the lights of Trafalgar Square’s Christmas Tree, gifted by the Norwegian city of Oslo. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

Nothing ushers in festive feelings quite like coming together and singing or hearing Christmas carols. But do all nations have them?

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Oh, it’s the most wonderful time of the year… thanks in large part to Christmas music.

Singing traditional songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus has been a mid-winter tradition in the United Kingdom for centuries, ever since Christian 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 carolling traditions have cropped up and evolved independently of the originally English tradition. Let’s go and explore.

Read more: Why do we sing Christmas carols?

Which countries sing Christmas carols?

Christmas is primarily a religious celebration, marking the birth of Jesus Christ in Christianity. But it’s also a wider cultural celebration, observed in 160 countries around the world – by both Christian and non-Christian people.

Accordingly, Christmas carols are sung in many countries, including England, Ireland, and Wales; the United States and Canada; south American countries; many European countries, including Germany, Spain, Greece, Croatia and the Czech Republic; Russia; and African nations, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Malawi.

The only countries that don’t observe Christmas as a public holiday are Afghanistan, China (except for Hong Kong and Macau), Iran, Israel, Japan, Laos, Mongolia, Morocco, North Korea, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.

Read more: 9 greatest Christmas carols from around the world

Salvation Army playing Christmas carols in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
Salvation Army playing Christmas carols in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Picture: Alamy

What are the different carol traditions observed around the world?

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

In the US and Canada, the English tradition of carolling has been adopted, with many Christian and non-Christian people alike singing carols to celebrate Christmas. Many well-known 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 carol, written by the US pastor Edmund Sears.

Australia, being a southern hemisphere country, is filled with people singing about the ‘bleak midwinter’ in the week before Christmas, while outside it’s about 40 degrees centigrade. Australian composers have addressed this rather surreal and unseasonal festivity, and composed new carols that reflect the Australian landscape in summertime. Carols like ‘A Christmas Day’ and ‘The Three Drovers’ reflect mid-summer Australia’s red, dusty landscape and the air being ‘dry with summer heat’.

Read more: ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ is the perfect song to teach music theory

Andrea Bocelli sings 'Adeste Fideles' for Believe in Christmas concert

In Greece and Cyprus, it’s traditional for children to go out and sing carols on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Epiphany Eve (5 January). Carollers carry metal triangles to accompany their festive songs, which celebrate feasting while offering praise to the women, men and children of the households they visit. A little bit like ‘trick or treat’ on Halloween, the carolling children usually request a treat in exchange for the promise that they’ll return the following year to top up their music-led well-wishing.

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

Many African countries have adopted the tradition of observing Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve as well, and in Gambia, communities host joyous parades after the Christmas Eve church service. Local people parade through the streets with bamboo lanterns shaped like houses and boats, and continue celebrating well into the night.

Explore the greatest international Christmas carols >

Listen to non-stop festive classical music with our Classic FM Christmas playlist on Global Player.