Updated: Dec 24, 2022
We celebrate holidays, especially Christmas, with music. Where did that tradition come from? We will learn a bit about the history of Christmas music in today's post.
Music and Christmas go together hand in hand. We often refer to Christmas songs as "Christmas Carols," however, a "carol" is not necessarily a Christmas song. It refers to dancing in a ring. It may come from Old French caroler which came from the Latin carauler which in turn came from Greek choraules, a flute-player for chorus dancing, and before that choros, a circling dance from Greek drama. So carols can be thought of as songs with joyful mood. While the first "carols" appeared in the Middle Ages, but there was already Christmas music before that.
Pagan Solstice Songs
Before Christianity became the dominant religion in the West, pre-Christian pagans had long established festivals and holidays (or holy days) centered around the shortest day of the.year, the Winter Solstice. These festivals include Roman Saturnalia, Nordic Yule, Persian Mithras, and other Midwinter celebrations. (Though we are celebrating on the Solstice which is the first day of the season, it is referred to as "Midwinter" as it marks the middle of the coldest half of the year. Many of our current "Christmas" traditions actually originate with pre-Christian Europe, including Saturnalia's gift-giving, our image of Santa based on the Nordic Odin, kissing under the mistletoe, and music.
The tradition of going door-to-door and singing or "caroling" can be traced back to the waes hael, meaning "good health." Each Midwinter, wassailers would walk through their villages in small groups singing loudly with banish evil spirits and wish good health to their fellow villagers in the middle of the cold, dark, and difficult season. They would drink a drink also called "wassail" made of ale, spices, egg, cream, fruit, and sugar as well. In the 13th century, St. Francis (1181/1182 – Oct. 3, 1226) was inspired by the tradition and began the tradition of Christmas caroling.
Listen to the example of a wassailing song in the video below. The Gloucester Wassail may not date back to the earliest wassailing songs, but it is at least as old as the Middle Ages.
The Gloucester Wassail
Earliest Christmas Songs
The earliest reference to specifically Christmas music on record dates back to 129 when Telesphous, Bishop of Rome, proclaimed that, "In the Holy Night of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior, all shall solemnly sing the Angel's Hymn, "Gloria in excelsos Deo." Surpriselt to us though, the "Holy Night of the Nativity" that he was referring to was not our date of Christmas which was not established to take take on Dec. 25 until the year 336 Before this, The most common English version of the Angel's Hymn is James Chadwick's Angels We Have Heard On High, translated in 1862.
Below is an example of a Gregorian chant Angel's Hymn from the Middle Ages.
Gregorian Chant Gloria
The Christmas Services
Many of the pieces of music we associate with Christmas were originally composed to be used in the religious Christmas celebrations. Like the Ordinary Mass and the Requiem Mass, the Catholic Christmas services use traditional texts that are sung or chanted to commemorate the occcasion. One of these texts is O Magnum Mysterium or Oh, Great Mystery, which comes from the Christmas Vespers, an evening prayer service.
The text in English:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that beasts should see the newborn Lord,
lying in a manger.
O Blessed Virgin, in whose unblemished womb
was carried the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!
Below is a performance of a haunting polyphonic setting of the O Magnum Mysterium text by Spanish composer, Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548 – 1611).
O Magnum Mysterium
Christmas is Banned!
During the short-lived Commonwealth of England (1649 – 1660), the government under Oliver Cromwell (April 25, 1599 –Sept. 3, 1658) prohibited singing Christmas carols because they believe them to be Pagan and sinful. These Protestants believed that the celebration of Jesus's birth on Dec. 25 was a foolish tradition wince there was no biblical basis for the date and the Catholic celebration had no place in their beliefs. In 1644, an Act of Parliament effectively banned Christmas festivities. In June 1647, Christmas celebration was declared an offense by Parliament. However, many people continued to celebrate in secret with the Christmas celebration offering a light in the darkest time of year. In May 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne and the public celebration of Christmas was revived.
The Boar's Head Carol tells the story of the Christmas feasts that were not allowed in the Commonwealth of England and is very likely one of the songs that English people were singing in their secret celebrations
The Boar's Head Carol
Hallelujah! Christmas Music Returns
During the Baroque era, Christmas music became not just a religious and folk tradition, but it also became a large public tradition as well. Composers such as J. S. Bach, George F. Handel (Feb. 23 1685 – April 14, 1759), and Arcangelo Corelli composed Christmas inspired masterworks. One of those most popular masterworks that is still performed regularly today is Handel's Messiah. Professionals, student, and amateur orchestras and choirs alike around the world perform this piece every Christmas, and even in some performances, the audience members join in and participate in what are called "Do-It-Yourself Messiahs."
The Messiah was originally composed for Easter. It debuted at Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, the audience was so large that ladies were asked to refrain from wearing hoop skirts so that more people could fit in the audience. He composed Messiah in an amazingly short period of about three to four weeks in August and September 1741. The text was prepared in July by the prominent librettist and devout Englishman, Charles Jennens. Jennens wrote, "I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject."
Christmas became the big holiday that it is today during the Victorian Era. Many of the songs we still love were composed, including religious songs like Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and O Holy Night, and secular songs such as Up On The Housetop and Jolly Old St .Nicholas" were composed during this renewed admiration for the holiday. The popular tradition of singing Christmas carols along with church readings in churches on Christmas Eve was begun at this time as well. In 1880. the first Bishop of Truro, in Cornwall, England, Edward White Benson created the tradition of the popular service of nine biblical extracts and suitable Christmas music which he called the Festal Service for Christmas Eve.
Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
Modern Favorites and Not-So-Favorites
New Christmas songs comes out every year. Some of them are moving and have the staying power to become new classics, such as Amy Grant's (b. 1960) 1992 song, Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song). While others are parasitic eagworms that have staying power although they should not, such as Paul McCartney's (b. 1942) Wonderful Christmastime. Most of forgotten almost as soon as they are written. But, whether it's good or bad, Christmas music is about bringing joy into our lives in a dark time of year. I wish you all a happy, healthy, and joyful holiday season and 2021!
Breath of Heaven
A Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
BBC. Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. http://www.bbc.co.uk/cornwall/content/articles/2005/12/16/faith_nine_lessons_feature.shtml (Accessed 25 December 2020).
Burton–Hill, Clemency. When Christmas carols were banned. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20141219-when-christmas-carols-were-banned (Accessed 25 December 2020).
Catholic Culture Staff. Christmas Workshop: Christmas Carols. https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=12020 (Accessed 23 December 2020).
Dearmer, Percy, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw. The Oxford Book of Carols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1928.
Kandell, Jonathan. The Glorious History of Handel’s Messiah. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-glorious-history-of-handels-messiah-148168540/ (Accessed 25 December 2020).
Pruitt, Sarah. Why Is Christmas Celebrated on December 25? https://www.history.com/news/why-is-christmas-celebrated-on-december-25 (Accessed 24 December 2020).
These Six Christmas Traditions That Are Actually Pagan. https://chefin.com.au/blog/these-6-christmas-traditions-are-actually-pagan-customs/ (Accessed 24 December 2020).
Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.