The 12 Days of Carols: Stories about some of your favorite Christmas carols

Mia Rincón/CPR

Updated Thursday, Nov 2, 2023

You probably know all the words to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," but have you ever wondered why the same lyrics that "wish you a Merry Christmas" also demand "some figgy pudding"? Or why riding in a "one-horse open sleigh" has anything to do with Christmas? (Hint: it doesn't).

The familiar carols that help brighten our holiday season each have unique stories to tell. Some were inspired by the magic of Christmas Eve. Others were written in summer heat waves.

Hear the stories behind your favorites carols below and be sure to listen to the "12 Days of Carols" beginning Dec. 12. Every day you'll hear the carol of the day and the story behind it, culminating on Christmas Day at 3:30 p.m. for all of the carols and their stories back to back.

CPR Classical is your Sound of the Season - CLICK HERE for the full broadcast schedule.

Carol #1: "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella"

The Story of “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella”

Who is Jeanette Isabella? Not one woman, but two young girls star as the heroes of this 16th-century French carol, who found baby Jesus in a stable and spread the word to their neighbors.

Carol #2: "Do You Hear What I Hear?"

The Story of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

"Do You Hear What I Hear?" was born of the Cold War during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the midst of fear and worry, a moment of peace shared between mothers and their children inspired the first lines of this holiday favorite.

Carol #3: "Jingle Bells"

The Story of “Jingle Bells”

It's a carol that didn’t start as a Christmas song. If you listen closely, "Jingle Bells" has no specific reference to the holidays! In fact, the original version of the song was a bit scandalous in the 19th century. It’s Bing Crosby we have to thank for the family friendly version of this beloved carol.

Carol #4: "O Little Town of Bethlehem"

The Story of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

A carol about an unforgettable trip to Bethlehem for Christmas in the 19th century, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was penned by a far-traveling Episcopal priest and an organist who never imagined it would become what it is today.

Carol #5: "The Christmas Song"

The Story of “The Christmas Song”

A Christmas carol written during a hot California day — it’s a wonder that "The Christmas Song" (a.k.a. "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire") feels like the ultimate cozy tune for a chilly winter day. But the real magic lies with the singer chosen to record the song.

Carol #6: "Good King Wenceslas"

The Story of “Good King Wenceslas”

A good-hearted man with a jolly demeanor? No, not Santa Claus, Good King Wenceslas. The carol was inspired by a real beloved Bohemian king and his generosity on cold, snowy nights.

Carol #7: "O Holy Night"

The Story of “O Holy Night”

A song so powerful that soldiers reportedly laid down their arms to sing to each other across "no man's land," "O Holy Night" also has a unique connection to the birth of radio.

Carol #8: "In the Bleak Midwinter"

The Story of “In the Bleak Midwinter”

The magic of “In the Bleak Midwinter” is due largely to poet Christina Rosetti’s lyrics. She built the dark and dreary setting of a manger in the cold English winter as a way to highlight the real meaning of Christmas: sharing our hearts.

Carol #9: "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

The Story of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Judy Garland made this song famous in the 1944 film "Meet Me in St. Louis," but the lyrics she sang weren't the original ones. Garland thought the lyrics were too depressing and would make her co-star cry. They were changed to be a little less depressing, but before Frank Sinatra recorded the song, he requested yet another change. It's this version most well-known today.

Carol #10: "Silent Night"

The Story of “Silent Night”

It hardly feels like Christmas without “Silent Night," but how did the song become so ubiquitous? It started as a last minute addition to a Christmas Eve service at a church in a small Austrian town, but quickly spread across the world to become one of the most recorded and performed carols.

Carol #11: "Joy to the World"

The Story of “Joy to the World”

A Christmas carol about a curse? How jolly. "Joy to the World" starts as an uplifting tune, but by the third stanza you find yourself singing "far as the curse is found." What is that all about?

Carol #12: "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"

The Story of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”

The tradition of caroling began hundreds of years ago, where singers performed for wealthy neighbors and were often treated to food and warm drinks as a tip. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” cut to the chase and carolers asked for what they wanted through song!

CPR Classical is your Sound of the Season

Hear CPR Classical by clicking “Listen Live” at the top on this website, or download the Colorado Public Radio app. Listen on your radio to CPR Classical at 88.1 FM in Denver, at radio signals around Colorado, or you can also tell your smart speaker to “Play CPR Classical."