On the First Day of Christmas CCS Gave to Me…

The Difference Between Copyrighted and Public Domain Christmas Songs

While we know the “Twelve Days of Christmas” doesn’t technically begin until AFTER the birth of Christ, we’re going to have a little fun and use the well-loved public domain Christmas carol to count down to Christmas.   

How about a brief history lesson? From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England weren’t allowed to practice their faith openly. Some scholars say The Twelve Days of Christmas was composed at this time as a catechism song for young Catholics, complete with code words that symbolized religious tenants. Pretty cool, right?  

In anticipation of Christmas, we’re counting down with twelve ways your church can prepare along the way – from Christmas carols to music licensing and songs and scriptures to practical solutions, we hope you find some ideas you can implement! 

And while we’re talking about carols, one of the most common questions we get is concerning public domain vs. copyrighted music. On the first day of Christmas, we’re here to explain. 

You can use public domain songs without obtaining permission, paying royalties, or crediting the original author. However, this does NOT apply to copyrighted arrangements of a song in the public domain. Songs that are copyrighted will require permission, licensing, or exemptions.  

So how do you know the difference? Aren’t most Christmas songs in the public domain? The answer – while there are those you can use freely; many Christmas songs, carols, and hymns are copyrighted and owned by secular music publishers. It’s a commonly held misconception that all Christmas music is available for use without permission.  

Want to test your knowledge? Look at the list below and see if you know which songs are in the public domain and which require licensing:  

Angels We Have Heard on High  

Away in a Manger  

Frosty the Snowman  

Deck the Halls  

Hark the Herald Angels Sing  

Feliz Navidad  

Do You Hear What I Hear?  

O Come, O Come Emmanuel  

Jingle Bells  

Santa Claus is Coming to Town  

Silent Night  

First Noel  

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen  

Little Drummer Boy  

Carol of the Bells  

How do you think you did? Angels We Have Heard on High, Away in a Manger, Deck the Halls, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Jingle Bells, O Come Emmanuel, Silent Night, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen are all in the public domain – meaning you are free to use without obtaining permission.  

However, if you plan on performing, playing or streaming Frosty the Snowman, Feliz Navidad, Do You Hear What I Hear?, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, First Noel, Little Drummer Boy, or Carol of the Bells you will want to look into music licensing.  

We’ve got two great resources to help you navigate these songs. For a complete listing, download our two fact sheets, Copyrighted Christmas Songs, and Public Domain Christmas Songs, from our online Learning Center.  If you have any questions, call us at 877-394-5566 or live chat with church copyright consultant online.

About Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS’s quest is to help churches and Christian ministries “do music right.”  CCS is an expert on church music copyrights and our primary focus is providing licensing and clear educational resources to churches. Follow us onTwitterFacebookInstagram, and Youtube. The information contained herein is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.