The day after Thanksgiving, Christmas tunes fill the air; some beloved, some sickening.
The tunes swirl around your head with relentless cheer — Santa rocking around the Christmas tree, Rudolph with his nose so bright, mommy kissing Santa Claus. The music is piped into shops, stores and airports, and is on popular radio stations from dusk to dawn. As pervasive as they are, Christmas carols are not a by-product of pop culture, and many have an ancient origin.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word carol comes from a French word that means, “men and women holding hands and dancing around in a circle.”
Carols, therefore, are considered a song of praise, and they hark back to medieval Europe when folks sang these jubilant songs in honor of the Winter solstice, usually in late December.
Christians adapted this custom, tailoring their words to the gospel message, especially the birth of the Savior. The earliest Christian carols were written in Latin, the official language of the Church, and were sung only by clergy. According to one online source, one of the earliest records of caroling was documented in 1223, the year St. Francis of Assisi started nativity plays. Music sung at the plays eventually spread to other parts of Europe. Troubadours, or traveling minstrels, then carried these carols throughout the region, tailoring the words to each locale.
The Victorian era in England is widely known as the progenitor of many Christmas traditions adopted by the United States. Sending Christmas cards, giving gifts and lighting trees were all traditions made popular during the Victorian period, so it is no surprise that two diligent Englishmen, William Sandys and Davis Gilbert, compiled a collection of Christmas songs during this time period.
Their book, “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern,” sparked popular interest, and caroling became part of the holiday fabric. The quintessential holiday tale, “A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens,” makes mention of carolers in the book, as does the title.
History of holiday standards
While there are thousands of holiday songs — some composed merely to cash in on seasonal sentiment — some have interesting, and even political, histories all their own.
Published in 1833, and considered one of the oldest carols, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” first appeared in the Sandys and Gilbert’s book. The lyrics date back four centuries earlier. No one knows for certain who the merry gentlemen are in the song, but it’s thought that this song may have been sung to the British aristocracy by carolers who hoped to have a few gold coins thrown their way.
Three famous historical figures had a hand in composing the Christmas hymn “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The lyrics were written in 1739 by Charles Wesley, brother to John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church. The original lyrics read, “Hark, how the welkin (heaven) rings.” George Whitefield, a contemporary of Wesley, is credited with having changed the opening lyrics to the words we are accustomed to.
In 1840, Mendelssohn composed a cantata in honor or Johann Gutenberg. Fifteen years later, Dr. William Cummings put Wesley’s words together with Mendelssohn’s music. It’s believed that Wesley did not approve of Whitefield’s linguistic changes, and Mendelssohn insisted that his music be used for secular purposes only, so you can only wonder how the two composers would feel about today’s rendition of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
Myths and legends swirl around many Christmas carols, but perhaps none as pervasive as “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Today, we enjoy numerous parodies of this song, but there are some who believe that the piece was originally composed as a subterranean attempt to preserve secrets of the Catholic faith during persecution. Others say that the twelve objects in the song have a hidden, or apocryphal meaning. Still others attribute metaphoric meaning to the song. The five golden rings represent the five books of the Pentateuch, the four calling birds are the four gospels, the three French hens are the three gifts brought by the Magi to the child Jesus, and so on. Most people, however, think the song is merely a secular celebration of the season.
Another intriguing theory is that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” might have been confused with a religious song from the 17th century called, “In Those Twelve Days.”
Whole books have been written on the history of one carol, “Silent Night.” The song originated in the early 1800s in Austria. It was sung at a midnight mass at, ironically enough, St. Nicholas Church. A number of myths surround the origin of this hymn such as suggesting that the music was composed by Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. But according to historian Bill Egan, the facts about the song’s origin are indisputable.
An Austrian curate wrote the song lyrics in 1818. Accompanied only by a guitar, Joseph Mohr first sang his new hymn, “Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht!” with his village congregation on Christmas Eve. The original lyrics had six verses, and “the choir would repeat the last two lines in four-part harmony,” Egan writes.
A friend of Mohr’s and village schoolteacher, Franz Gruber, composed the music.
The Austrian Rainer Family performed the song for the first time in the United States in 1839, outside Trinity Church in New York City. By that time, the song had become popular in certain parts of Europe. King Frederick William IV of Prussia was so fond of the song, he had the Cathedral Choir sang it for him each year during the Christmas season, Egan said.
From jazz arrangements to rhapsodic orchestrations to the kid’s first Christmas recital piece, the song “Jingle Bells” has been played and recorded in more ways than Santa has helpers. “Jingle Bells” ranks as one of the top 25 most popular tunes of the Christmas season. But two cities have battled over its origin for many years.
Savannah, Ga., claims “Jingle Bells” as their own. According to their historians, composer of the tune and church organist James Pierpoint first performed the song at the Savannah Unitarian Universalist Church in 1857. The infectious tune immediately caught on. Pierpoint moved to Savannah in 1853, fought for the Confederates during the Civil War and was buried there. The song was copyrighted in Savannah in 1857.
But residents of Medford, Mass., have a different story. Pierpoint was born in Medford, the son of an abolitionist minister, but he ran away from home at fourteen. After traveling around the country, Pierpoint returned to Medford, married and raised a family. The Medford contends that he composed the song in the Simpson’s Tavern in 1850, and they have a monument on the spot to mark the occasion. Local legend says that Pierpoint hid a copy of Jingle Bells in a chest, which he later retrieved and used for his 1857 Savannah performance.
Recent historical research has shown that Medford may, indeed, have the previous claim. The newly uncovered research suggests that Pierpoint likely played his catchy tune in a Medford Church as early as the mid-1840s.
Modern Holiday Songs
With the advent of multiculturalism, Christmas songs have changed from being religious in nature to being merely festive or nostalgic. Most of today’s holiday tunes have made their way into the fabric of our culture via movies, musicals or television shows. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” “Frosty, the Snowman” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” are just a few examples.
And while it’s commonplace for celebrity singers to release a holiday CD in hopes of milking the next cash cow, some songs manage to transcend the commercialism of the season.
Irving Berlin’s composition “White Christmas” is considered to be the most popular holiday tune of all times. Originally recorded by Bing Crosby, the song was released in 1942 and was an immediate hit.
Another Crosby hit, “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” was released a year later and remained in the top ten on the record charts for eleven weeks. In 1943, while our nation was at war, the song was re-released. It became the most requested song at Christmas USO shows. The melancholy tune remains a season favorite. When asked if they wanted any music piped to them in their spacecraft, the astronauts of Gemini 7, Frank Borman and James Lovell, told their NASA team that they wanted to hear Crosby’s version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
John Lennon and Yoko Ono reportedly composed the song, “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” in a New York City hotel room and then recorded it a few months later, in time for the holiday season. The song, which is dedicated to their children, did not do well on release here in the United States, but fared better in the United Kingdom. The children’s voices on the recording are the Harlem Community Choir, specially brought in for the recording.