Christmas is the one holiday that has its own music. In fact, music is so much at the core of Christmas celebrations that three of the top fifteen best-selling singles of all time are Christmas-themed, and public venues start playing carols right after Halloween, two months early. Think about it; no other American/western European holiday involves theme music.
I realized this fact last night while attending the second holiday concert of this season, listening to a stream of sublime medieval motets and “Marian polyphony” by Chanticleer. As they sang dozens of songs about mangers and Magi, I tried to think of songs for Halloween or Thanksgiving, and they are rare, ancillary, afterthoughts. In the religious elementary school I attended as a child, Easter and Christmas were considered equally worth of pageantry, and we performed songs for parents in both. But few people would now sing “Go to Dark Gethsemane” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” while shopping for chocolate bunnies in March.
Music is a fundamental part of the Christmas experience, as old as wassailing and gift-giving, almost as old as snow and the change of the seasons.
Circular Dancing and Minor Keys
The word carol means song, not specifically Christmas-related, but a song of joy. The origin of the word may refer to a ring of stones used for a circular dance, a reminder that everything in Christmas hearkens back to the most ancient of times. Wikipedia says that the first Christmas hymns were 4th century, meaning that songs were intertwined with the mythology and religious celebration of Christianity at the earliest stage of its adoption.
Christian carols carry a few strong themes. There is shelter given to a poor family in the cold, birthing a child in the lowly animal barn. Contrast is key here and many songs address the opposites, either of wise men coming to bow and bestow expensive gifts, of animals kneeling to the baby, and of a bright star/heavens shining in the dark night sky. Mary and baby Jesus seem to me yin and yang, the two completing a circle within this story. The baby who will be king, the “little boy crying in the icy cold” as one medieval Spanish carol says “a un niño llorando”; the mother who is “full of grace” and the “fair gate to Heaven.”
Far more than half these songs are in a minor key. Think of the the poignancy of “What Child Is This” or “I Wonder as I Wander.” Even for songs not in a minor key, the shift from major to minor and back, that harmonic resolution, forms the core of songs like “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” That’s true of many songs but it pays off in spectacular fashion when done properly (i.e. in “O Holy Night”), with harmonizing voices and good acoustics. At the heart of these songs is the triumph of the light over the cold, the angels singing to awake the shepherds in the windy fields, and the infant, often painted wearing an arc-light-level halo visible from miles away.
The poverty of circumstances is core to the story and its songs; even contemporary reminders of that contrast make that point as well. Consider the choice of the Claremont Methodist Church to portray its Nativity scene as a family separated in cages. I wonder if they chose music to play for passersby and, if so, what it was.
Here We Go A Wassailing
If you really want to talk about December singing traditions, you’d go back to the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which featured singing, dancing, feasting, and a few other more adult behaviors. But once the Catholic church decided to superimpose the story of baby Jesus over the same time period, other singing traditions grew quickly. One of the most prominent was wassailing, where people would go door-to-door with a bowl of spiked hot cider, offering drinks to homeowners in exchange for gifts. Later, the sloshing, rapidly-cooling communal well of diseases was eliminated, and the wanderers chose to just sing instead.
Singing door-to-door has disappeared though it still remains a fixture in some cultures. Think of Hugh Grant in “Love Actually,” being beseeched by a flock of little English girls, “Oh–puh-leese…” until he breaks out into “Good King Wenceslas.” The scene becomes even funnier as his security man/driver joins him in a hearty and concert-worthy bass; the shot cuts away abruptly, although I would have liked to see them finish the song. What is that song about? A king who goes out into the snow to give alms to the poor in winter.
If you’re in the music business, then Christmas is a busy time…Church musicians can’t keep track of which Lesson comes before which Carol, organists play their fingers to the bone, and Muzak gets you everywhere you can be got.William Fred Scott, Music Director of Chanticleer
Rockin’ the Jingle Bells
Biblical themed music, though, is only half the story. While “Silent Night” is the fourth best-selling song of all time (all songs, not just Christmas), number one for years has been Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” Couple that with the more recent domination of the pop music airwaves by Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” (#12 of the top 15) and it’s clear that secular holiday music is just as much a part of our celebration.
What kind of themes flow through the non-baby Jesus crooning? I came up with five categories (because as soon as I start making lists, sorting, grouping, and analytics are never far behind…):
- It’s cold
- Party Time
- Love Songs with a Christmas theme
- Another Christmas story
I was struck by how this grouping of five–which you could call Fa La La La LA!!–still swirls around those themes of the family in winter and the glorious circle dancing/Saturnalia. “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Jack frost nipping at your nose, sleigh bells, and winter wonderlands all contain that winter-y essence. Certainly, many countries don’t have snow in winter, so perhaps they can only think of dashing through snow as a story as strange as wise men on camels. But then there’s Party Time–“Jingle Bell Rock,” “Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “This Christmas,” and even “Deck the Halls” are at essence about enjoying the celebration itself. What do the words “holly jolly” make you think of ? Burl Ives, I should think, as holly jolly was simply invented for the song.
Many of the most popular Christmas songs are simply love songs yoked to the holiday. Whether it’s the Mariah Carey song, which by the way is now 25 years old, or “Last Christmas,” which is about being jilted, these are ordinary people-in-love themes. Doesn’t matter; big hits. “Winter Wonderland” is about a marriage proposal. The other huge category of songs hover around home and hearth. When you dream of white Christmases, it’s because they’re the ones you used to know. With many of these famous renditions done by singers now long past, the nostalgia of the song is intermingled with the nostalgia for listening to the song.
Curiously, many of what would be considered modern classic Christmas songs are additional stories about characters linked to Christmas. Many are linked to Santa, to be sure, whether he’s “coming to town” or “hurrying down the chimney tonight.” But new characters have sprung up in the last fifty years to join Saint Nick. Frosty’s situation has always seemed to me a terribly sad story dressed up in a circle dance; the snowman knows his life is short-lived and chooses to devote it to children. Rudolph’s story is about anti-bullying, triumph of the Other in a crowd that shuns him, at first, for his difference. Dramas about these characters came after the song, and those stories in turn spawned more songs.
Even some of the best-told stories are enhanced and inseparable from their music. Any time you hear the opening sassy trumpets and the silky deep voice of Thurl Ravenscroft with his, “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch…”you can visualize the cartoon version slithering around the presents he is about to steal. A more recent classic, favorite in our household, is about Olive and her quest to live the ultimate dog dream of becoming a flying reindeer. The TV version contains the prophetic lyrics that come to mind every time I go to the mailbox during December:
One flimsy little Christmas card,The mailman’s song from “Olive, the Other Reindeer”
Surely, that can’t be too hard!
But multiply it a billionfold,
And see why Christmas leaves me cold.
Christmas… bah, bug and hum!
They cut down bigger, fatter logs,
So I can bring more catalogs!
Last but not least, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a favorite for nearly everybody. But try to imagine the story without music–you can’t! From the skating glissandos at the very opening to the rumbling arpeggio of “Linus and Lucy” as the characters trudge through the snow, music is integral to the show. It’s no accident then that when Linus is asked to explain what Christmas is about, and he quotes from the Bible, he quotes the part where the angels SING to the shepherds. The ending? After fixing up Charlie Brown’s little tree, the children sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
All of this shows again and again that it is music that will drive the cold winter away. As one poet, Edward Bolton, said:
Voices most divineEdward Bolton, A Carol in the Pastures
Make blissful harmony
Voices that seem to shine
For what else clears the sky?