“My native country was full of youthful promise; Europe was rich in the accumulated treasures of age.”
Every European country has it’s little Christmas traditions: glug Glühwein in a German Christmas market, bake traditional cakes in Denmark, eat one of the seven Christmas meals in France … in Finland, of course, you can even meet Santa! Washington Irving is right, Europe is all about those treasures of age accumulated over centuries. And perhaps no tradition is observed as consistently as the Christmas Carols – with each country having its own twist, of course. The following list provides you the best Christmas songs in every European country and (mostly) a link to the lyrics in both original and English versions. Have a look at the Ukrainian, Hungarian, Norwegian and Czech songs, they will lead you directly to Christmas fairy.
Hush! “The boy’s asleep, lying in the straw, His angels are singing, for the love of the poor child…” On Christmas Eve, this rather discreet carol is sung in front of every fireplace in the country. Most Portuguese people simply consider this 18th century canções de Natal from Évora to be the most beautiful European Christmas carol of all. But hush! Don’t say it out loud, you might wake the boy up… Lyrics here.
The fish in the river are really excited about the birth of Jesus, and they make it very clear in this rather vivid Christmas carol. The lyrics are subject to a lot of interpretations – the most widespread being that the fishes refer to “sinners” or “believers”. And to continue on the same topic, during Christmas dinners, the locals celebrate the birth of Christ by drinking like fishes too … Lyrics here.
The iconic song Petit Papa Noël was first recorded in post-war France by singer Tino Rossi. Today, it is still the best-selling single in France ever. Let yourself be gently rocked by its chorus: “Little Santa Claus, When you come down from the sky, With thousands of toys, Don’t forget my little stocking. But before you leave you should dress well. Outside you will be so cold.” Lyrics here.
Oh yeah… “Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul, with his corncob pipe; his button nose and two eyes made out of coal”. Icelandic children and adults usually pay tribute to our happy little Frosty with a dance performed around the Christmas tree – the highlight being when one of the Yule Lads (figures from the Icelandic folklore equivalent to Santa Claus) joins the celebration, sings along and, eventually, delivers gifts – to those who deserve them. Lyrics here.
The Wexford Carol, sometimes known by its first verse “Good people all this Christmas time”, is one of the oldest extant Christmas carols in the European tradition. It originated in County Wexford in the 12th century! And, like so many carols, it is all about the nativity. Traditions abound concerning the song, for example that only men should sing it given its religious content; women had to wait until the 1990s to be allowed to join in. Lyrics here.
Every year around Christmas, we all start humming this innocent if bawdy song – which, believe it or not, is actually older than the Queen! Its origin lies in the English tradition for wealthy people of the community to give Christmas treats such as ‘figgy pudding’ to carollers on Christmas Eve. It is one of the few English Christmas carols mentioning New Year celebrations. Lyrics here.
Jeg Er Så Glad today still remains a very popular Norwegian Christmas song. To put it bluntly: Norwegians like to sing it while running around the Christmas tree… You might say, it goes well with the lyrics: “I am so glad each Christmas Eve, The night of Jesus’ birth! Then like the sun the star shone forth, And angels sang on earth”. Just try it once, it’s liberating! Lyrics here.
Ok… If you’re not Nordic, this tradition will just sound weird. But in Sweden, Saint Lucia’s Day is a very serious matter. Every 13 December, a young girl is elected to portray the sainted Lucia: she wears a white gown and a crown of candles, and walks at the head of a procession of women, each holding a candle. The women sing a Lucia song while entering the room, to the melody of the traditional Neapolitan song Santa Lucia. Lyrics here.
In Santa’s homeland, you can bet there are as many Christmas-related songs as there are reindeer. But this one, composed in 1978 by Katri Helena, has become a real classic over time. Joulumaa, translated as The Land of Christmas, just lets the spirit and magic of Christmas bloom… We’ve tried, but it’s simply impossible to not like it: “Christmas land is more than a fjeld and snow ; Christmas land is human imagination’s kingdom of peace”. Lyrics here.
The earth is lovely, isn’t it? Or at least that’s what the Christmas carol Dejlig er jorden is all about. The most famous Christmas song in Denmark (and the Faroe Islands) was written by the Danish composer B.S. Ingemann in 1850. Do not be fooled by appearances however, the carol is actually based on an old Silesian folksong: Schönster Herr Jesus. Lyrics here.
The shepherds were waiting that night, originally composed for the Dutch Catholic Church, has become very popular over the last century. The song is about a group of shepherds, who, having a lie-down in the fields, saw a heavenly light, heard an angel speak and went to look for Jesus. The Carol was recorded in 1852 by Joseph Alberdingk Thijm but was probably of older origins (17th or 18th century). Lyrics here.
“He is born, the Heav’nly Child; Oboes play; set bagpipes sounding; He is born, the Heav’nly Child; Let all sing His nativity” So goes the chorus of this enchanting song. It is a traditional carol, published for the first time in 1862 by R. Grosjean, organist of the Cathedral of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges. As such, it’s not really Belgian, but it has been adopted by the French-speaking community for ages – so bring out your bagpipes for an authentic Brussels Yuletide! Lyrics here.
O Tannenbaum may be the most famous Christmas Carol ever. It has been translated in almost all languages. The lyrics do not actually refer to Christmas, or describe a decorated tree. Instead, they relate to the evergreen fir tree’s qualities as a symbol of faithfulness. It became associated with the Christmas tree at the beginning of the 20th century – while the tune has been also repurposed by the British Labour party, turning its subject matter from green to red. Lyrics here.
Unto us a time has come is a traditional Swiss Christmas carol from the Canton of Lucerne. A secular variant of the lyrics was prepared during the Nazi era by right-wing poet Paul Hermann (1904–1970), and is still reprinted in some German songbooks. Now, a textual variant of 11 verses dating from 1957 is generally sung, re-establishing the religious content of the song. Lyrics here.
Tu scendi dalle stelle, meaning You come down from the stars, is Italians’ favorite song for Christmas. Italian children learn it in grade school. At Christmas, the stores pipe it through their music systems and just about every Italian can hum the tune and even knows the words. The melody and original lyrics were written by Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, a prominent Neapolitan priest. Lyrics here.
Don’t mess with this one, as it was declared a piece of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in March 2011! It is believed that Joseph Mohr was able to produce the first version of this world famous Christmas carol’s lyrics on the night of December 24th 1818 in just a few short hours. The original manuscript has been lost, but, a later manuscript was discovered in 1995 in Mohr’s handwriting and dated by researchers as c.1820. Lyrics here.
This Christmas song contrasts sharply with the others on the list. Let’s go to Bethlehem, or Půjdem spolu do Betléma in its original language, is about a group of musicians who go to Bethlehem to play different musical instruments to the new baby born Jesus. “I will rock you all day long; And you Johnny, let your pipe sound!” Lyrics here.
Byzantine and Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar and hence celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6th and Christmas Day on the 7th. But no matter: because “Blessing”, the Christmas song called Daj Boh šťastia in Slovak, is about the beauty of love and the best wishes to the people of the world. It couldn’t be more Christmassy. Lyrics here.
On Holy Night, Hungarians listen to international Christmas carols such as Silent Night – or their own homegrown Kis karácsony, nagy karácsony – which means Little Christmas, Big Christmas. It says, more or less: “Little Christmas, Big Christmas, Have you baked the cake? When it turned on, here with me, Let me eat it warm”. And if you want to know more about Christmas cakes, let us be your guest! Lyrics here.
This Polish carol is regarded by some as the National Christmas hymn, and, for a short time, it was even considered a national anthem! The carol consists of five verses, each with eight lines, and each line with eight syllables. The hymn’s lyrics contains a series of apparent oxymorons: God is born, power is trembling: Lord of the Heaven exposed. Fire’s congealing, resplendence is darkening, the infinite one has boundaries. Lyrics here.
On Christmas morning, Lithuanian children wake up early and sing or dance to receive gifts from Kaledu Senelis or, as we know him in some parts of Europe, Santa Claus. Families visit the homes of relatives and friends and convey their greetings and well-wishes.Džiaugsmingų Šventų Kalėdų would be one of the traditional Lithuanian Christmas carols you could hear on such an occasion. Lyrics here.
Latvians have a special message for you: “Greetings to the world – listen to this song: That’s the morning of happiness! And forests, fields, hills, And the rocks, the streams, the clear waters, they all sing in the whistle, and jubilantly, cry in a jumble!” This is approximately the lyrics of this beautiful Latvian Christmas song called Prieks Pasaulei (Greetings to the world) that we strongly invite you to listen and sing along to. Lyrics here.
The Orthodox Church in Belarus also still adheres to the Julian calendar. This is why all holidays are celebrated with a 13-day delay. Kaliadavanne is one of the most emblematic Christmas traditions in Belarus. Groups of dressed-up people wander from house to house, singing Kaliady songs. The master of the house visited during Kaliadavanne is supposed to give the group either sausage, snacks or sweets. Lyrics here.
The wonderful Christmas Carol Shchedryk was arranged by composer and teacher Mykola Leontovych in 1916, and tells the story of a swallow flying into a household to sing of the wealth that will come the following spring. The song is based on a traditional folk chant whose language was thought to have magical properties. Shchedryk was later adapted as an English Christmas carol under the name Carol of the Bells. Lyrics here.
Something unique for Christmas in Moldova is the tradition of carols or colinde. The idea is that children, and some adults walk door to door to congratulate their neighbors, friends, or relatives with the coming of Christmas. The practice of singing colinde historically corresponded with the practice of dressing up as animals or masquerading as demons or other figures. These colinde were often themed around hunts, animals that spoke, and the cult of the dead. Lyrics here.
O, ce veste minunată is a very popular Christmas carol, sung primarily in Romanian-speaking communities and countries. The text states “O what great news! Is shown to us in Bethlehem! Today has been born, the One without a beginning, As the Prophets foretold!” It is attributed to Dumitru Kiriac-Georgescu (1866-1928) who is associated with much Romanian traditional music. Lyrics here.
In this country, Santa Claus is known as ‘Dyado Koleda’ (Дядо Коледа), which means Grandfather Christmas. This is also the name of this energetic Bulgarian Christmas song which is one of the most famous carols in the country. Try to follow the lyrics, it is just heartwarming: “Tink tink, tink, tink, tink, tink, Who’s there? Who’s there? Who will come to this hour, Here comes Santa Claus!” Lyrics here.
The song Bela Snežinka has become a very popular Christmas carol in Slovenia over the last few years. The Slovenian song, translated in English as White Snowflake is the most played Slovenian holiday song. Too much, according to some: the version of the song performed by the Veter ensemble topped the list of the 100 most overplayed Christmas and holiday Slovenian songs. Lyrics here.
The population of Albania is a mix of Muslims and Christians. But Christmas in Albania is unique, what with both the communities celebrating the occasion with almost equal fervour. At Christmas, Albanians exchange gifts with their friends and family members. This beautiful Christmas carol celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. It means something like Small Christ anointed us today.
With more than 500 songs, the number of Croatian Christmas carols is surprisingly large for such a small country. There are Christmas verses that can have a dozen different melodies, varying considerably from region to region. Veselje ti navješćujem (I’m announcing you joy) is a traditional carol and is known in more than 50 different melodic versions in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Lyrics here.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
This beautiful Christmas carol, composed in the 13th century, is very popular in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It means Unto Us Was Born the Heavenly King. Christmas, or Bozic in Bosnian, is a time of traditions, festivities and food. It is also a time of tolerance between Muslims, Orthodox and Catholic. When you’re travelling in Bosnia, you’ll see plenty of happy children awaiting the arrival of Djeda Mraz, Grandfather frost.
This Serbian Orthodox Christmas Carol is also worth listening to. Bozicna pesma means “the Angels sing” and is just as beautiful as Christmas. If you want to sing along, the lyrics say: “The night so grand and placid, a star shining over the cave, the mother sleeping in the cave, where the angel of Jesus has been, The angels are singing”. Lyrics here.
We are slowly coming to an end of this European tour of Christmas Carols, but we are not done with discoveries yet. In Macedonia, children tend to sing Вечниот Бог on Christmas Eve – a traditional Byzantine Christmas Carol which approximately sings: “Eternal God who came down to Virgin Mary, Holy, holy, holy, holy God; King of Adam and God came to us”. Lyrics here.