The Holiday Season is upon us and many are immersed in the good feelings of family get-togethers, gift giving, stuffing ourselves with enormous amounts of food and a myriad of other activities of this festive season. One of the most recognizable and all encompassing manifestations of the season is the preponderance of holiday music. We hear it everywhere – radio, television, department stores, carolers, holiday concerts, in churches and in the homes of our families and friends.
Where did most of our familiar Christmas music come from? The early Christmas music, of the first European Americans, originally came from Western Europe. The pilgrims brought much of their European heritage with them to the new world. Among their musical traditions was music that was sung and played at Christmas time. However, in England in 1645, Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell actually banned Christmas as they thought the celebration of Christmas was decadent. This practice was repealed during the rein of Charles II and the English people could again celebrate Christmas.
The Anglican Church instituted carol singing on Christmas Eve in1880. In Boston, from 1659 to 1681, celebrating Christmas was declared illegal. The fine for celebrating could cost as much as five shillings. Can you imagine?
Musicologists have traced the antecedents of the song, Holly and the Ivy, still sung today, back to the middle ages. Leaders of the Protestant Reformation – Martin Luther (1483-1546) of Germany and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) of England, were both influential in advocating the use of Christmas carols in church worship services.
After the American Revolution the restrictive customs of England began losing popularity, especially celebrating Christmas. Interestingly, the American Congress met on Christmas day in 1789, the first Christmas after the constitution was signed. It was almost a century later, in 1870, when Christmas was made a federal holiday in the United States.
The early Christmas music had a decidedly religious theme inherit in the words and music. It, of course, had its roots in sacred music of the church.
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, “A carol is a popular hymn of a joyous nature in celebration of an occasion such as Easter or Christmas. The earliest English carols date from the 15th century. The carol is characterized by simplicity of thought and expression. Many Christmas hymns composed in the 19th century have been called carols.”
As time went on, music that was related to Christmas themes became more secular in nature. Some milestones in the evolution of Christmas music and the singing of carols are: O Come All Ye Faithful, (Adeste Fidelis) written in the mid-1700’s, originally in Latin, was later translated into the vernacular. Angels from the Realms of Glory, written in 1816, is one of the most famous carols with words by James Montgomery and music by Henry Smart. Away in a Manger with music by William Kirkpatrick, was written in 1885. Clement Moore wrote the famous poem, The Night Before Christmas in 1822. This text has been set to music many times.
“Rudolph the Ninth Reindeer,” A poem by Robert L. May in 1939, became the seed for the song, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” written in 1949 by Johnny Marks. Gene Autry made it a best seller Christmas song, second only to White Christmas, made popular by singer, Bing Crosby.
In addition to the previously mentioned carols, some of the more popular include: Angels We Have Heard on High; Away In A Manger; Deck The Halls; Ding Dong, Merrily On High; The First Noel; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; Good King Wenceslas; Hark the herald Angels Sing; Joy To The World; Silent Night; O Holy Night and O Little Town of Bethlehem. Popular American Christmas songs include: Jingle Bells, Jolly Old St. Nicholas and Up On the House Top.
When we trace the history of many of our favorite carols, we may be surprised to find how many of them are of European origin. We can thank our English and German cousins across the “pond” for a large number of these carols. Our musical heritage at holiday time is rich and varied. This season take some time to listen, participate and enjoy the beautiful sounds of the season in the rich heritage of Christmas music in America.
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