UNITED STATES CHRISTMAS TIME
Christmas is a widely celebrated festive holiday in the United States. The Christmas and holiday season begins around the end of November with a major shopping kickoff on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, though Christmas decorations and music playing in stores sometimes extend into the period between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Many schools and businesses are closed during the period between Christmas and the New Year’s Day holiday, which is a time commonly used to spend time with family, return unwanted gifts at stores, and shop after-Christmas sales. Most decorations are taken down by New Year’s or Epiphany. Other observances considered part of the season (and potentially included in non-denominational holiday greetings such as “Happy Holidays”) include Hanukkah, Yule, Epiphany, Kwanza and winter solstice celebrations.
The interior and exterior of houses are decorated during the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve. Christmas tree farms in the United States and Canada provide families with trees for their homes, many opting for artificial ones, but many prefer real trees. Many people that have farms make a special treat of going out in their forest and cutting down their own tree. The Christmas tree usually stands centrally in the home, decorated with ornaments, tinsel and lights, with an angel or a star symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem at the top.
Christmas Eve is popularly described as “the night before Christmas” in the poem actually titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Better known as Santa Claus, he is said to visit homes while children are sleeping during the night before Christmas morning. The fireplaces have been replaced in many homes with an electronic fireplace, but the yule log has remained a tradition. Christmas stockings are hung on the mantelpiece for Santa Claus to fill with little gifts (“stocking stuffers”). It is tradition throughout the United States for children to leave a glass of milk and plate of Christmas cookies for Santa Claus nearby.
Presents the family will exchange are wrapped and placed near the tree, including presents to be given to pets. Friends exchange wrapped presents and tell each other, “Do not open before Christmas!” Grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings and occasionally guests from out of town are entertained in the home or else visited. Wrapped presents are most commonly opened on the morning of Christmas Day; however, other families choose to open all or some of their presents on Christmas Eve, depending on evolving family traditions, logistics, and the age of the children involved; for example, adults might open their presents on Christmas Eve and minor children on Christmas morning, or everyone might open their gifts on Christmas morning. Others follow the tradition of opening family-exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve night, followed by opening of the presents Santa brought on Christmas morning. Children are normally allowed to play with their new toys and games afterwards.
The traditional Christmas dinner usually features roasted turkey with stuffing (sometimes called dressing), ham or roast beef (sometimes all three) and Yorkshire puddings. Potatoes, squash, roasted vegetables and cranberry sauce are served along with tonics and sherries. A variety of sweet pastry and egg nog sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg are served in the United States. Certain dishes such as casseroles and desserts are prepared with a family recipe (usually kept a secret). Fruits, nuts, cheeses and chocolates are enjoyed as snacks.
Other traditions include a special church service on the Sunday before Christmas and Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Candlelight services are held earlier in the evening for families with children. A re-enactment of the Nativity of Jesus called a Nativity play is another tradition.
Christmas-related attractions, such as the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, Radio City Music Hall for their Christmas Spectacular and elaborate animated department store windows in New York City are heavily visited by tourists from all over the world, as well as native New Yorkers, Christmas music can be heard in the background. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is one whose annual carol singing is well-recognized; another example is the Boys Choir can be heard singing Christmas Time is Here, a song featured in the animated television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Christmas symphony orchestra and choral presentation such as Handel’s Messiah and performances of The Nutcracker ballet are well attended. Local radio stations may temporarily switch format to play exclusively Christmas music, some going to an all-Christmas format as early as mid-October. A few television stations broadcast a Yule Log without interruption for several hours. News broadcasts and talk shows feature Christmas-themed segments, emphasizing fellowship and goodwill among neighbors. Also on television, there are a plethora of holiday themed specials and movies.
While tradition holds that the official Christmas starts on Thanksgiving with the stores ready to receive the Christmas shopper the day after Thanksgiving, unfortunately more and more in recent years many stores are starting to push things for Christmas just as children are going back to school right after Labor Day. There are even stores that open on Thanksgiving Day or that evening to get a jump on the competition. This is so wrong and really ruins the spirit of the season. Just to make extra dollars it would seem.
THE MUSIC OF CHRISTMAS
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“; “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.
MUSIC AND TRADITIONS OF CHRISTMAS
There are some programs that dedicate the entire month of December to only playing traditional holiday music. What songs bring back childhood memories for you or memories with family and friends? What songs will you play during this holiday season with your friends and family?
Millions of people will celebrate Christmas on December 25th, and is the most widely celebrated religious holiday around the world. Over the next few weeks, people around the world will begin preparing for Christmas. People have been or will be buying gifts to give to family members and friends. They will be filling homes and stores with evergreen trees and bright, colored lights. There will be parties to host and attend as well as preparing special Christmas foods. Many think Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year
Most church services will feature Advent wreaths and candles and a recreation of the nativity scene. Some churches hold a Midnight Mass. Services will not only celebrate the story of the nativity but the overall significance of Jesus Christ, as it is viewed as the coming of the Savior, a very joyous event. Passages from the nativity story will often be read along with the singing of the many religious songs and hymns associated with the holiday. Songs will often feature themes from the nativity story, such as the messenger angels and stable. There are many songs associated with religious tradition, as Christmas music has become a major musical genre in both secular and religious traditions. It is believed that Jesus was born sometime between 7 and 2 BC. Two of the four canonical gospels mention his birth, although it is not believed to have actually taken place on the date of Christmas. Rather, the holiday began to take place during the time of the winter solstice in order to distract from and absorb the pagan festivals associated the time of year. Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus and the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy. The two biblical accounts from Luke and Matthew have evolved into a popular tradition of the tale, stating that Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem on a donkey in order to take part in a census. The couple approached an inn, but there was no room, so the couple stayed in a stable with a manger and farm animals. The baby Jesus was born and placed in the manger. Jesus was visited first by shepherds in surrounding fields having been told by angels of Jesus’s birth and to go see the child. Jesus was also visited by three wise men, guided to the nativity with a star, followed by other astrologers and scholars who had noticed the star.
Many Christians will go to church the night before the holiday or on Christmas Day. They will celebrate Christmas as the birthday of Jesus Christ. Christian ministers will speak about the need for peace and understanding in the world. This is the spiritual message of Christmas. Church services will include traditional religious songs for the holiday. One of the most popular is “Silent Night.” Yet there are others that will celebrate Christmas as an important, but non-religious, holiday.
The Holiday season is filled with good times with friends and family, good food, timeless traditions, and amazing music. Traditional holiday music has the power to bring back memories from family generations and bring together the old and young. Two holidays during the winter that have timeless, classic, and century old music is Christmas and Hanukkah. These holidays have songs that make our all-time favorite music lists. Another important Christmas tradition involves food. Families prepare many kinds of holiday foods, especially sweets. They eat these foods on the night before Christmas and on Christmas day. For many people, Christmas means traveling long distances to be with their families. To all, however, it is a special day of family, food, and exchanging gifts.
Christmas is probably the most special day of the year for children. One thing that makes it special is the popular tradition of Santa Claus. Young children believe that Santa Claus is a fat, kind, old man in a red suit with white fur. They believe that — on the night before Christmas — he travels through the air in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. He enters each house from the top by sliding down the hole in the fireplace. He leaves gifts for the children under the Christmas tree. In America, Santa Claus is a Christmas figure that brings toys to children on Christmas Eve. He is stationed in the North Pole, where he works all year with his elves as helpers to make toys to bring boys and girls on Christmas Eve. Many children will send Santa a list of things they want for Christmas or visit Santa at the mall. On Christmas Eve, Santa loads up the toys in a red sack into his sleigh, which is pulled by twelve reindeer. The reindeer are led by Rudolph, a reindeer with a bright red nose that can guide the reindeer throughout the world at night. Rudolph used to be teased by the other reindeer for his red nose, but this stopped when it was put to good use on Christmas Eve. Santa visits each child’s house on Christmas Eve, leaving their gifts under the tree or by the fireplace. He also stuffs stockings that each child hangs over the fireplace with treats, trinkets, and other goodies. Many children leave out cookies and milk for Santa to enjoy as he leaves presents. On Christmas morning, children will joyfully awaken and make their way to the fireplace and Christmas tree in order to see what Santa brought them. Many families open Christmas presents on Christmas Day but some may exchange gifts of Christmas Eve. In other areas, Santa Claus has another name such as Kris Kringle or St. Nicholas.
People spend a lot of time and money buying Christmas presents. There are those that object to all this spending and say it is not the real meaning of Christmas. So, they celebrate in other ways. For example, making Christmas presents; instead of buying them (sometimes homemade/handmade is much better). Or they volunteer to help serve meals to people who have no homes. Or they give money to organizations that help poor people around the world.
Home and family are the center of the Christmas holiday. For many people, the most enjoyable tradition is buying a Christmas tree and decorating it with lights and beautiful objects. On Christmas Eve or Christmas morning, people gather around the tree to open their presents.
Another Christmas tradition is to go caroling. A group of people walks along the street at each house, they stop and sing a carol, groups also go caroling at schools, hospitals, shopping centers and more.
Not everyone celebrates Christmas. Members of the Jewish and Muslim religions do not. Jewish people celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah. And others observe, Kwanzaa. Yet many take part in some of the traditional performances of the season. One of the most popular is a story told in dance: “The Nutcracker” Ballet. The music was written by Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky in 1891. The ballet is about a young girl named Clara. Clara is celebrating Christmas with her family and friends. One of her Christmas presents is a nutcracker and is designed as a toy soldier. She dreams that the nutcracker comes to life as a good-looking prince. Professional dance groups perform the ballet at this time of year. They often use students from local ballet schools to dance the part of Clara and the other children in the story. This affords parents an opportunity to see their children perform.
There are so many classic Christmas songs that have been around for many years. A lot of artists today make modern renditions of some of our favorites. It seems like every top rock, country, or pop artist has a Christmas album. Their albums include some of our old time favorites and new hits. Traditional Christmas songs range from carols, to ballads, to instrumental, to classic songs. Some of our favorite Christmas carols have been around for centuries. Some songs that may sound familiar are “Angels We Have Heard on High” or “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” More modern Christmas tunes are songs such as “White Christmas,” “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” or “Silent Night.” Traditional Christmas music can be found in some of our favorite movies as well.
Hanukkah songs are beautiful and rich with tradition. The songs are not only about the holiday itself, but go along with lighting candles on the menorah. A famous comedian, Adam Sandler, wrote a comical song about Hanukkah to bring a modern touch to the holiday. A very eloquent and traditional song, “Mi Y’ maleil,” is song in Hebrew and was written about spiritual victory. It has also been translated into an English version, and the titled is translated as “Who Can Retell.” Another classic song about Hanukkah is called, “Light One Candle.” This was written about the Maccabees’ and the struggle for equality and justice and about Judaism through the ages. A common image representing Hanukkah is the dreidel. A song that teaches about the dreidel is called, “I have a Little Dreidel.”
Before the Christian festival, a large pagan celebration of the time was Yule. Yule was a twelve day festival observed by Northern Europeans that was mostly absorbed into Christmas celebrations. The celebration’s theme was the cycle of life given by the sun and observers lit fire to symbolize this. The Yule log was burned to honor Thor, a Scandinavian god. Many observers burned the log until it was ash or until only a little piece was left, which was kept for good luck. In Poland, the solstice was observed with themes of forgiveness and selflessness, often marked with sharing food or giving to the needy.