Is a Christmas carol the same as a hymn? While both are often religious and sung to worship God, hymns are sung throughout the year in churches across the world whereas Christmas carols are only sung during the festive season; but is this where the differences end or start?
Most music associated with Christmas is only used during the Christmas season because of its lyrical content – the text used in Christmas music is usually seasonal and would be out of place in other services throughout the year. No plainchants or ancient hymns are stylistically different from the music composed for any other time of the year.
The Catholic hymn ‘Jesu Redemptor omnium’, though assigned to Christmas Day in the Missal, has Nativity words, but its melody has no distinct features that distinguish it from other chants for other occasions.
Later on in time, neither the gloriously meditative motet by Victoria ‘O magnum mysterium’, nor the ebullient ‘Hodie Christus natus est’ by Sweelinck, nor indeed Bruckner’s exultant ‘Virga Jesse’ contain any music that could not just as easily be applied to any celebratory season of the year.
Even the fascinating commissions for King’s College, Cambridge’s carol service are not so much Christmas music as new anthems to Christmas words, however evocative they may be. Perhaps only John Rutter’s music can lay claim to a distinctive Christmas identity, through its embodiment of off-beat sweetness and traditional allusions.