This is the oldest Christmas carol (Hint: It’s not 'Silent Night')

“Away in a Manger.” “Silent Night.” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” These names are probably what come to mind when you think about traditional Christmas carols. As classic as these songs are, they’re actually not that old—and definitely not as old as the first Christmas carols.

Christians have been celebrating Christmas since at least 375 A.D. (that’s supposedly when the Church first recognized December 25 as Christmas Day), but “Hark!” came around more than 1,300 years later in 1739. Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to “Silent Night” in 1818, and “Away in a Manger” was written even later in 1882. (Here’s why we sing Christmas carols in the first place.) So what did people sing before these classics?

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A man dressed as a Santa Claus poses on top of the Kollhoff Tower at Potsdamer Platz square in Berlin, Germany, December 13, 2015 REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
A man dressed as a Santa Claus poses on top of the Kollhoff Tower at Potsdamer Platz square in Berlin, Germany, December 13, 2015 REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
A man dressed as Father Christmas aka Santa Claus climbs down the Kollhoff tower on December 13, 2015 as part of a yearly stunt before the festive season. AFP PHOTO / JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP / JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
A man dressed as a Santa Claus climbs down from the Kollhoff Tower at Potsdamer Platz square in Berlin, Germany, December 13, 2015 REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
A man dressed as a Santa Claus climbs down from the Kollhoff Tower at Potsdamer Platz square in Berlin, Germany, December 13, 2015 REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
A man dressed as a Santa Claus climbs down from the Kollhoff Tower at Potsdamer Platz square in Berlin, Germany, December 13, 2015 REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Costumed participants attend a traditional Perchtenlauf (Perchten parade) in Osterseeon near Munich, Germany, December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle
Costumed participants perform during a traditional Perchtenlauf (Perchten parade) in Osterseeon near Munich, Germany, December 17, 2016. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle
KAPLICE, CZECH REPUBLIC - DECEMBER 12: Participants dressed as the Krampus creatures walk the streets during Krampus gathering on December 12, 2015 in Kaplice, Czech Republic. Krampus, also called Tuifl or Perchten, is a demon-like creature represented by a fearsome, hand-carved wooden mask with animal horns, a suit made from sheep or goat skin and large cow bells attached to the waist that the wearer rings by running or shaking his hips up and down. Krampus has been a part of Central European, alpine folklore going back at least a millennium, and since the 17th-century Krampus traditionally accompanies St. Nicholas and angels on the evening of December 5 to visit households to reward children that have been good while reprimanding those who have not. However, in the last few decades the western Austrian region of Tyrol in particular has seen the founding of numerous village Krampus associations with up to 100 members each and who parade without St. Nicholas at Krampus events throughout November and early December. In the last few years, Czech towns, placed on the border with Austria, invite Austrian Krampus groups into towns for parades as a new tradition during Advent. (Photo by Matej Divizna/Getty Images)
A krampus mask is laid on the street ahead the start of the traditional Krampus run in Munich, southern Germany, on December 11, 2016. A Krampus is a half-demon, half goat figure who punishes children who misbehaved during the Christmas season. / AFP / dpa / Andreas Gebert / Germany OUT (Photo credit should read ANDREAS GEBERT/AFP/Getty Images)
People dressed as Krampus and a woman dressed as an angel pose ahead the start of the traditional Krampus run in Munich, southern Germany, on December 11, 2016. A Krampus is a half-demon, half goat figure who punishes children who misbehaved during the Christmas season. / AFP / dpa / Andreas Gebert / Germany OUT (Photo credit should read ANDREAS GEBERT/AFP/Getty Images)
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Technically, they sang hymns, not carols. Hymns are more solemn, religious songs, while carols were considered dances accompanied by music, according to NPR. The first of these Christmas hymns was likely “Jesus Refulsit Omnium” (“Jesus, Light of All the Nations”), written by St. Hilary of Poitier in the 4th century.

Another early Christmas hymn is “Corde natus ex Parentis” (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten). Christian poet Prudentius wrote the Latin poem that inspired this song in the 4th century as well, but it wasn’t set to music until centuries later. You won’t hear either of these early “carols” on the radio, but both are still sung at religious services around Christmas.

As far as more familiar Christmas carols, those still don’t appear for centuries. “The Friendly Beasts,” a carol about the animals present at the Nativity, probably originated in France in the 12th century. Fast-forward 500 years, and the world got “Adeste Fideles.” (It was translated in to English as “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” in 1841.) Just a few years after “Adeste Fideles” came “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” around 1760.

Now when you hear youngsters call Christmas carols by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra “old,” you can smile to yourself. They don’t even know the half of it.

The post This Is the Oldest Christmas Carol (Hint: It’s Not “Silent Night”) appeared first on Reader's Digest.

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