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5 Underrated Christmas Hymns You Might Not Have Heard Of

Christmas carols can be extremely powerful. The familiar melodies are forever ingrained in our minds, and no matter how jaded we get throughout life, they always bring us back to a place of innocence—or at least sentimentalism.

Before we had Jingle Bells and Silent Night, the Church had lots of other, lesser-known Christmas hymns to help celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. While you probably know some of these tunes by heart, you might not have ever heard all of them.

Many Christmas songs aren’t given their due credit, so here are 5 underrated Christmas hymns you might not have heard before. (And, in case you were wondering, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was not included in our roundup—but it’s definitely one of my favorites).

1) The Holly and the Ivy

The origin of The Holly and The Ivy is unclear, but it was first published in a broadsheet in 1686. It may have been written by John Playford, and sung at a local church where he was organist. The song quickly spread throughout England during the 1700s and beyond. Although we associate The Holly and The Ivy with Christmas today, it was originally created as an Easter hymn, reflecting on Jesus' death and resurrection.

Historically, people thought that holly had magical powers—it was believed to bring good luck if placed above doors, ward off witches who tried to steal milk cows by hiding sprigs under their cows’ udders, and many believed that evergreen plants were symbols of eternal life. Today's lyrics are similar to those found in Joseph Ritson's A New Year's Gift for 1815.

2) Once In Royal David's City

This Christmas hymn was originally written as a carol and has been performed since 1854. It is often overlooked due to its somewhat confusing lyrics, but it’s message is clear: once you believe, your path will become clear and God will always guide you. "Once in royal David's city, stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for His bed; Mary was that mother mild; Jesus Christ her little child."

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12 of our favorite Christmas Hymns in one collection, complete with backing tracks, guide vocal demonstration versions, and PDF lead sheets.

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3) While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

This popular Christmas hymn is often mistakenly believed to be an old English folk song. It’s actually based on a poem written by 18th-century English writer Charles Wesley. A lighthearted tune, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks was composed in 1749 for John Playford’s Collection of Ballads. The melody draws inspiration from Elizabethan composer William Byrd, who used Ewch i mewn i rywun fel y ganiatáu Duw (Here am I in between one man who prays and another God) as his sacred choral tune setting in Latin Church music during Advent 1589–1623.

4) In The Bleak Midwinter

This lesser-known Christmas carol was written by Scottish poet Christina Rossetti in 1872, and was first published in her poetry collection Goblin Market and Other Poems. The song is incredibly sad, even for a Christmas carol, but it’s worth listening to at least once during your holiday season. It might feel like an odd choice, but chances are you haven’t heard it since childhood; take some time with it now. It could become your new favorite holiday tune.

4) From Shepherding of Stars

Shepherding of Stars was written by Frederic Weatherly (1848-1929), who was an English poet whose work focused on Christian subjects. It is a traditional carol, yet not as well known as some other songs. This is most likely due to its unfamiliar name and its depiction of a very personal story about seeing Christ in your life – rather than glorifying him. Despite that, it is one of my favorite carols because it tells such an intimate story with powerful lyrics that just can’t be beat! When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers / The moon and stars that You have ordained; / What is man that You are mindful of him? (Psalm 8:3-4).