How did Christmas music start?

Roderick Swanston investigates how Christmas music started and what gives it its festive air

A Brief History of Christmas Music

For much of the first Christian millennium, Christmas was a less important feast than Easter. In fact, little music appeared that identified either occasion. Ironically, paganism was the main ingredient which changed this. The second millennium witnessed a number of distinctly Christmas genres, notably the carol, which was not originally exclusive to Christmas.

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The carol’s origins are complex and disputed, but somewhere in its hinterland are Anglo-Saxon round dances with repetitive choruses probably originating in celebrations of the winter solstice rather than the Nativity. Some rather disapproving high-minded Norman knights witnessed these, thus confirming the existence of local practices and music distinct from their own.

But these early words and tunes proved handy for the Christian proselatisation of such groups as the Franciscans, who harvested them for their enactments of Biblical stories aimed at illiterate, non-Latin speaking common people. Explaining Latin words by vernacular translations in the same poem started the macaronic (mixed language) tradition, a good example of which is the 14th-century ‘In dulci jubilo’ with its mix of Latin and vernacular words set to a singable, memorable, popular, non-liturgical tune.

Another, ‘Angelus ad virginem’, began life in France but on arriving in England acquired the English translation ‘Gabriel from hevene came (or King)’ and became sufficiently familiar for Chaucer to refer to it in his Miller’s Tale.

The 15th century experienced an explosion in carols, possibly due to the growing cult of the Virgin Mary. Some carols included Christ’s nativity as part of a survey of his life and death, such as the medieval ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ with its blend of pagan naturism and Christian ideas.

In the 16th and 17th centuries some Protestant reformers became ambivalent about Christmas because they considered it not Biblical, despite the nativity chronicles in St Luke, and too much concerned with the ‘Catholic’ Virgin Mary. The Scottish Kirk attempted to ban Christmas in 1561, but their hard-line attitude was mollified, though the legacy of New Year being more important than Christmas in Scotland has survived.

However, other Protestant traditions embraced Christmas and in the 18th century hymns and songs for Christmas appeared, notably Nahum Tate’s ‘While Shepherds Watched’ (1703) and John Byron’s ‘Christians awake’ (1745).

Christmas has always been difficult to define, as it had to combine two things: the birth of a vulnerable baby in deprived circumstances and the incarnation of the son of God. The presence of angels gloriously embodied in Handel’s ‘Glory to God’ (1742) represents the transcendent side of the story, but the vulnerable-baby side surpassed the transcendent over the years.

During the 19th century, as traditions such as decorating trees, giving presents and consuming drink and food became an integral part of the festival, so music appeared to accompany them. Prince Albert’s tree and Dickens’s Pickwick Papers exemplified the transferral from the crib of the importance of children, animals and presents.

Unsurprisingly, a number of the most familiar 19th-century Christmas hymns appeared in children’s collections, such as CF Alexander’s ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ and ‘Away in a Manger’ (1885). William Sandys’s Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1823) contained ‘The First Nowell’, a typical blend of old words and, most likely, a corrupted west gallery tune. In America, ‘Jingle Bells’ was written in Boston in 1857, initially for a children’s Sunday School Thanksgiving celebration.

Musically, the 20th century has presented Christmas in several ways, the most contrasting being Eric Milner White’s attempt to create a link with an imagined timeless tradition through the service of Nine Lessons and Carols for King’s College, Cambridge and the appearance of more popular sentimentality around the festival. Milner White’s service owed something to its being inaugurated just after the horrors of World War One.

Reaching back through time in the candlelit splendours of King’s chapel must have seemed a way of making such 18th-century hymns as ‘Hark! The Herald’ and ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ more hallowed and old. In contrast, the commercial secularisation of Christmas has generated such songs as ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ (1943) and Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ (1942). The latter sums up both these 20th-century ideas in the words ‘just like the ones we used to know’. Christmas music, some of it unwittingly, has become part of an imaginary, but potent, recreation of an imagined past.

Listen to our YouTube playlist of the pieces mentioned in this article here.

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