Which countries have Christmas carols as a tradition – and what are the best carols from around the world?

17 December 2021, 14:31

Christmas carolling in Ryazan, Russia
Christmas carolling in Ryazan, Russia. Picture: Getty

By Rosie Pentreath

Step aside for a moment, ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and ‘The Holly and the Ivy’. We’re taking a sleigh ride around the world to discover different nations’ carolling traditions...

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

Nothing ushers in festive feelings quite like coming together and singing or hearing Christmas carols.

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.

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

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.

Read more: How to listen to the Classic FM Christmas playlist

What are some of the best international carols?

People and cultures all over the world have contributed to the canon of traditional Christmas carols. Here are some of the best...

  1. Suo Gân (Lullabye) – Wales

    Across the border from England, Welsh carollers have several of their own beautiful Welsh language carols. Among the traditional songs sung at Christmastime are this wonderful Lullabye, the melody of which is also used for Christmas hymns like ‘As the Winter Days Grow Longer’ and ‘Christ Before Us’.

  2. Campana Sobre Campana (Bells Over Bethlehem) – Spain

    A popular carol in Spain and South American countries, this carol originates from Andalucia, and sings of the bells that sound in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. Bethlehem is “Belén” in Spanish, and the word is used to create a sense of rhythm in the song.

  3. Stille Nacht (Silent Night) – Germany

    The English version of this sublime German carol is well known as ‘Silent Night’. It was composed in 1818 by Franz Xaver Gruber and lyricist Joseph Mohr, and translated to English in 1859.

    Read more: The 30 greatest Christmas carols of all time

  4. Sankta Lucia (Santa Lucia Song) – Sweden

    ‘Santa Lucia’ is a lovely children’s Christmas song hailing from the chilly latitudes of Northern Europe. 13 December is Saint Lucia Day in Sweden, and each town votes to crown it‘s own Saint Lucia, who wears a crown of candles and brings bright light and song to homes and workplaces, accompanied by a choir of girls wearing white with a red sash.

  5. Musevisa (The Mouse Song) – Norway

    ‘The Mouse Song’ is a modern Christmas carol, composed by Alf Prøysen in 1946. Prøysen was commissioned by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation to write the song, and he set his lyrics to a traditional Norwegian folk tune.

  6. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – United States

    ‘It Came Upon’ is a dignified and melodious carol, with lyrics by Massachusetts pastor Edmund Sears. The most common musical setting of Sears’ carol has been adapted from an 1874 melody by English composer Arthur Sullivan.

  7. Go Tell it on the Mountain – United States

    The African-American community has its own rich tradition of Christmas carols and spiritual songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus. ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ was compiled by John Wesley in around 1865, and it’s been recorded and performed extensively by gospel singers ever since. Civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer added the phrase “let me people go” from the spiritual, ‘Go Down Moses’, to the song to make ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’ an anthem for the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond.

  8. Christmas na Kimangu (Christmas Mystery) – Kenya

    This is an upbeat and joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus, featuring bright guitar motives and vibrant eastern African rhythms.

  9. Pasko Na Naman (It's Christmas Again) – Philippines

    ‘It’s Christmas Time Again’ is one of the most popular Filipino Christmas songs, composed by Felipe Padilla de Leon, and arranged by George Hernandez. “It’s Christmas again, how fast time flies, Christmases past, seem just like yesterday…” the beautiful song intones.

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