As seasons change and the holiday rush begins in full force, Christmas carols seem to appear earlier and earlier each year. Once upon a time, Thanksgiving was considered the unofficial date when radio stations began to play holiday music. This year, I heard my first Christmas carol when picking up Halloween candy at the grocery store.
But, regardless of whether you love or avoid holiday music, many of the seasonal songs have been around for hundreds of years. Some have social or political messages and many have a colorful history.
The first versions of many popular Christmas songs were composed in ancient Rome. They were written in Latin and were initially unpopular as a result. The ninth and tenth centuries saw the appearance and evolution of more Christmas music, almost exclusively Christian in nature. Verses were made to rhyme and songs were adapted to sound similar to popular melodies. In the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi began to popularize the previously unpopular hymns, adding music to unaccompanied lyrics and translating the hymns into the audiences’ native languages. He made carols celebratory by turning the birth of Christ into a more theatrical event – organizing nativity pageants and integrating Christmas music into mainstream culture.
Later, traveling minstrels would visit villages and “sing for their supper,” passing along songs and lyrics from one village to another. Door-to-door singing caught on about 1,000 years ago and is often referred to as “wassailing,” a practice where carolers are invited into a home for a warm drink. Truthfully, wassailing was not originally the innocent practice that we now know. Rather, it was a great reason to drink excessively. It was essentially the Christmas version of trick-or-treating. Peasants would travel through neighborhoods, to the doorstep of the lord who owned their lands and begin drunkenly singing. This was done under the guise of wishing the lord a happy holiday, but was essentially low-level extortion, with the carolers promising not to cease until the lord gave out food and drink. Hence, the “Here We Come A-Wassailing” lyric “We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here.”
While the original lyrics to some popular tunes have been lost over the years, the 1800s saw printed music and lyrics that documented first versions of each song. Songs like “The First Noel,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” were first published in William Sandys’ Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. Most of the traditional carols that we sing today were written and published in the mid-1900s. These songs include: “Do You Hear What I Hear” (1962), “Frosty the Snowman” (1950), “Joy to the World” (1956), “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (1943), and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949).
Ronald Clancy documented the stories behind many favorite carols in Best-Loved Christmas Carols: The Stories Behind Twenty-five Yuletide Favorites (public library). The stories he tells reveal that many famous carols were born out of sorrow and a search for personal peace.
For instance, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem he called “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day in 1863, while still grieving the recent death of his wife in a house fire and his son’s injury in a Civil War battle. According to Clancy, “Longfellow heard church bells pealing with the good news of Christmas, causing his demeanor to change.” As a result, the poem ends with the hopeful, “With peace on earth, good-will to men!” Once the poem was set to music, it became what we now know to be “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
In 1868, Philadelphia rector Phillips Brooks was grief stricken over the death of President Abraham Lincoln, for whom he held great admiration. He took a trip to the Holy Land to make peace with his feelings and his horror over the Civil War’s brutality. The Christmas Eve services at the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem provided great inspiration. As Clancy writes, “He later told friends, ‘That experience was so overpowering that forever there will be a singing in my soul.’” That experience was the direct inspiration for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Clancy noted the inspiration for “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was found in the uncertainty of the Cold War. Composer Noel Regney and his wife, pianist Gloria Shayne, wrote the song as “a hymn of peace borne out of a sense of desperation and fear of war during the looming Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus the resonance of the song’s words: ‘Pray for Peace, people everywhere!’”
Alabama Chanin has gathered our own list of holiday favorites, featured below. We offer a little something for everyone and music from many eras and genres. Listen, recall your own family memories, and celebrate holidays past and memories yet to be made.