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John Francis Wade

This carol is among the most recognizable Christmas tunes in existence. Although its origins are not known, both the tune and several of its Latin verses were recorded by an eighteenth-century scribe named John Francis Wade, who is known to have been employed by various institutions of the Catholic Church. The tune also appears in a French manuscript, from which Wade may have adapted his version.

The tune's fame dates from a performance at the Portuguese Embassy Chapel in 1795 which so impressed the Duke of Leeds that he had it arranged for choir and ensemble; this arrangement -- often called "The Portuguese Hymn" -- spread quickly throughout Europe. By the late eighteenth century it had appeared in myriad tunebooks and hymnals, and the carol's familiar English translation was first published in the 1850s.