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Christmas music comprises a variety of genres of music normally performed or heard around the Christmas season, which tends to begin in the months leading up to the actual holiday and end in the weeks shortly thereafter.   Music was an early feature of the Christmas season and its celebrations. The earliest chants litanies, and hymns were Latin works intended for use during the church liturgy, rather than popular songs. The 13th century saw the rise of the carol written in the vernacular, under the influence of Francis of Assisi.

In the Middle Ages, the English combined circle dances with singing and called them carols. Later, the word carol came to mean a song in which a religious topic is treated in a style that is familiar or festive. From Italy, it passed to France and Germany, and later to England. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Audelay, a Shropsire priest and poet, who lists 25 “caroles of Christmas”, probably sung by groups of wassailers, who went from house to house. Music in itself soon became one of the greatest tributes to Christmas, and Christmas music includes some of the noblest compositions of the great musicians.

The England, Parliament prohibited the practice of singing Christmas Carols as Pagan and sinful. Like other customs associated with popular Catholic Christianity, it earned the disapproval of Protestant Puritans. Famously, Cromwell’s interregnum prohibited all celebrations of the Christmas holiday. This attempt to ban the public celebration of Christmas can also be seen in the early history of Father Christmas.   The Westminster Assembly of Divines established Sunday as the only holy day in the calendar in 1644. The new liturgy produced for the English church recognized this in 1645, and so legally abolished Christmas. Its celebration was declared an offence by Parliament in 1647. There is some debate as to the effectiveness of this ban, and whether or not it was enforced in the country.  Puritans generally disapproved of the celebration of Christmas—a trend which continually resurfaced in Europe and the USA through the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833), contained the first appearance in print of many now-classic English carols, and contributed to the mid-Victorian revival of the holiday. Singing carols in church was instituted on Christmas Eve 1880 in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, England, which is now seen in churches all over the world.   The tradition of singing Christmas carols in return for alms or charity began in England in the seventeenth century after the Restoration. Town musicians or ‘waits’ were licensed to collect money in the streets in the weeks preceding Christmas, the custom spread throughout the population by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries up to the present day. Also from the seventeenth century, there was the English custom, predominantly involving women, of taking a ‘wassail bowl’ round their neighbors to solicit gifts, accompanied by carols. Despite this long history, almost all surviving Christmas carols date only from the nineteenth century onwards, with the exception of some traditional folk songs such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “As I Sat on a Sunny Bank” and “The Holly and the Ivy.”

The status of Christmas as an important feast within the church year also means there is a long tradition of music specially composed for celebrating the season. The following is a brief and non-exhaustive list of notable compositions: (1) Thomas Tallis – Mass “Puer natus est nobis (1554); (2) Heinrich Schutz – Weihnachthistorie (1664); (3) Marc-Antoine Charpentier – Pastorale sur la naissance de N.S. Jésus-Christ (c. 1670); (4) Johann Sebastian Bach – several cantatas for Christmas to Epiphany and Christmas Oratorio (1734); and (5) George Frederic Handel – Messiah (1741).

The Messiah has become inextricably linked with the Christmas season, especially in England. This is in part due to the efforts of amateur choral societies during the nineteenth century. When it was composed, it was performed during Passiontide.

Songs which are traditional, even some without a specific religious context, are often called Christmas Carols. Each of these has a rich history, some dating back many centuries. As well as the standards we have come to know. These are known as a popular set of traditional carols that might be heard at any Christmas related event(s) and they include: (a) Angels We Have Heard on High ” (in the UK the text of “Angels from the Realms of Glory” is sung to this tune); (b) Away in a Manger; (c) Deck the Halls’ (d) Ding Dong Merrily on High; (e) The First Noël;   (f) Go Tell It on the Mountain; (g) God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen; (h) Good King Wenceslas; (i) Hark! The Herald Angels Sing; (j) I Saw Three Ships; (k) It Came Upon the Midnight Clear; (l) Joy to the World; (m) O Christmas Tree (O Tannenbaum); (n) O Come, All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles); o) O come, O come, Emmanuel; (p) O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël); (q) O Little Town of Bethlehem; (r) Once in Royal David’s City; (s) Silent Night; (t) The Twelve Days of Christmas“; (u) “We Three Kings of Orient Are“; (v) “We Wish You a Merry Christmas“; (w)What Child Is This?“; and (x) “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.

Less-often heard Christmas carols include: (a) “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella“; (b) “Coventry Carol“; (c) “Gabriel’s Message“; (d) “Here We Come A-wassailing“; (e) “The Holly and the Ivy“; (f) “In Dulci Jubilo” (Good Christian Men, Rejoice); (g) “In the Bleak Midwinter“; (h) “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming“; (i) “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow“; (j) “Sussex Carol” (On Christmas Night All Christians Sing); and (k) “Wexford Carol.     These songs hearken from centuries ago, the oldest (‘Wexford Carol’) originating in the 12th century. The newest came together in the mid- to late-19th century. Many began in non-English speaking countries, often with non-Christmas themes, and were later converted into English carols with English lyrics added—not always translated from the original, but newly created—sometimes as late as the early 20th century.

Popular secular Christmas songs from mid-19th century America include: Jingle Bells, Jolly Old Saint Nicholas and Up on the House Top. More recently popular Christmas songs, often Christmas songs introduced in theater, television, film, or other entertainment media, tend to be specifically about Christmas or have a wintertime theme. They are typically not overtly religious. The most popular set of these titles—heard over airwaves, on the Internet, in shopping centres and lifts, even on the street during the Christmas season—have been composed and performed from the 1930s onward. “Jingle Bells”, “Jolly Old St. Nicholas”, and “Up on the House Top”, however, date from the mid-19th century.   “Jingle Bells” was originally published under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857, and celebrated Thanksgiving, not Christmas.

The largest portion of these songs in some way describes or is reminiscent of Christmas traditions, how Western Christian countries tend to celebrate the holiday, i.e., with caroling, mistletoe, exchanging of presents, a Christmas tree, feasting, jingle bells, etc. Celebratory or sentimental, and nostalgic in tone, they hearken back to simpler times with memorable holiday practices—expressing the desire either to be with someone or at home for Christmas. Many titles help define the mythical aspects of modern Christmas celebration: Santa Claus bringing presents, coming down the chimney, being pulled by reindeer, etc. New mythical characters are created, defined, and popularized by these songs; Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Frosty the Snowman” were both introduced by Gene Autry a year apart (1949 and 1950 respectively). Though overtly religious, and authored (at least partly) by a writer of many church hymns, no drumming child appears in any biblical account of the Christian nativity scene—this character was introduced to the tradition by Katherine K. Davis in her “The Little Drummer Boy” (written in 1941, with a popular version being released in 1958).

The winter-related songs celebrate the climatic season, with all its snow, dressing up for the cold, sleighing, etc.

Of these, the oldest songs are “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland”, both published in 1934—though some element of the song came along earlier for two titles (the source or music). Almost a dozen were released in the 1940s, the next largest group coming in the 1950s. Only two became popular in the 1960s; one each in the 1970s and 1980s. “Do They Know It’s Christmas? ” by Midge Ure and Bob Geldof is the only relatively new one on the list: “Recorded in 1984 by Band Aid—an all-star band of British musicians—this benefit single assisted famine relief efforts in Ethiopia, and sold millions of copies over the ’84 holiday season (an updated version has recently been released).”

“Christmas Time is Here”, written by Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi for the 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas animated TV special, was popularized by the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California.    Johnny Marks has three top Christmas songs, the most for any writer—”Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”. By far the most recorded Christmas song is “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin, born Israel Isidore Beilin in Russia, with well over 500 versions in dozens of languages. Approximately half of the 25 best-selling Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers, including: (1) “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” by Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne; (2) “Winter Wonderland” by Felix Bernard; (3) “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells; (4) “Sleigh Ride”; (5) “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”’ (6) “Silver Bells” by Jay Livingston; (7) “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” by Bob Allen; and  (8) “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” by Walter Kent.

What is known as Christmas music today was often adopted from works initially composed for other purposes, coming to be associated with the holiday in some way. Many tunes adopted into the Christmas canon fall into the generic Winter classification, as they carry no Christmas connotation at all. Others were written to celebrate other holidays and gradually came to cover the Christmas season.

Kathy kiefer



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    December 7, 2014 at 5:45 am

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