History of Christmas Music

Instructor: Leslie McMurtry
'White Christmas' (1942) was, until recently, the most performed Christmas song of all time and topped the singles charts until 1998. In this lesson, you will learn the origin of Christmas hymns and carols, how they developed through the Middle Ages, were revived in the 19th century, and how the tradition of composing Christmas songs has continued through to today.

Medieval Christmas Music

Christmas hymns date to the fourth century and carols to the 13th century. The earliest known hymn in honor of the Nativity is ''Jesus refulsit omnium,'' which translates to ''Jesus, Light of All the Nations,'' written by St. Hilary of Poitiers, who died in 368. A carol is not, strictly speaking, associated with Christmas. A carol originally meant a cheerful, lively dance. Many carols were associated with different times of the year, including Christmas. In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi traditionally created the first crèche, also known as a manger or nativity scene, and sang carols there. While carols were part of the more secular, less religious Christmas traditions by the 14th century, the earliest known carols date from 15th-century mystery plays, which were folk dramas depicting Biblical scenes. The ''Coventry Carol'' is one example that remains popular today. Carols were generally handed down by popular tradition in the vernacular, which is the common language, not Latin, and was used for ceremonial and church occasions. Some carols that have not survived were bawdy or satirical.

Mystery plays had Biblical themes
Biblical themes

The Golden Age of the Carol

The Golden Age of the Carol is considered to have been between 1350 and 1550 AD. Many of these carols are macaronic, meaning they were sung both in Latin and a vernacular language, and some 500 texts survive. By 1600, the tradition of the Waits was incorporated into carol singing. The Waits were the official city watchmen whose job was to patrol the streets at night. At Christmastime, they combined their duty with carols they would play on musical instruments.

The Waits perform in London
The Waits

The establishment of the Protestant Church, known as the Reformation, encouraged the growth of carol singing. During this time, the first known book of carols, ''Christmasse Carrolles,'' was published in 1521. Several other collections were printed over the next century including ''New Christmas Carols'' in 1642. In 1649, the Puritans in England, along with Puritan communities in the New World (present-day United States), banned Christmas carols. The Puritans did not observe Christmas, as they saw no Biblical reference to the celebration of Christmas on December 25th. Nevertheless, many people in England celebrated in secret or defied the laws, thus passing on traditions for when the monarchy was restored in 1660.

Hymns and the Carol Revival

In 1707, Isaac Watts published ''Hymns and Spiritual Songs,'' containing at least 400 hymns written during his lifetime. The beauty of Watts' hymns galvanized a hymn-writing movement, including hymns for Christmas. Although carol singing almost disappeared in the 19th century, public choral singing in England started to gain popularity. Two important carol publications, Davies Gilbert's ''Some Ancient Christmas Carols'' (1822) and William Sandys' ''Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern'' (1833) helped revive carols. Both of these collections recorded the traditions of Cornwall and the West of England. To encourage his readers to help preserve the carol tradition, Sandys wrote that ''every one of his readers in every part of England, should collect every carol that may be singing at Christmas time in the year 1825, and convey these carols to him at their earliest convenience, with accounts of manners and customs peculiar to the people.''

Reverend J. M. Neale and Dr. John Stainer's 1853 ''Carols for Christmas-tide'' crested the wave of Victorian revival for English Christmas traditions and included such perennial favorites as ''Good King Wenceslas,'' which was written by Neale and set to a spring carol tune. There was also increased interest in researching medieval carols. For example, Neale set the ''Antiphons'' to music in 1851 in what we now know as ''O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.'' The ''Antiphons'' are among the oldest hymns, dating at least to the reign of Charlemagne; they may be as old as the 5th century. The music Neale used was a 15th-century French Franciscan processional.

During the 19th century, many German Christmas carols and hymns were translated into English and published.

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