A Short History of Christmas Music

Updated on January 4, 2020
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Chermel is a musician who explores music across all genres and languages.

Christmas caroling is a time-honored holiday tradition that is still practiced by many in the modern day.
Christmas caroling is a time-honored holiday tradition that is still practiced by many in the modern day.

Before delving into the history of Christmas songs, you should understand why Christmas is a holiday in the first place. Christmas was not always Christmas. Centuries before the birth of Jesus, many Europeans celebrated light and birth in the darkest days of winter. This celebration was known as "winter solstice." The end of December was also the one time of year that many families would have fresh meat to eat. Most livestock was slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the cold of winter. Many would turn this into a feast by enjoying wine or beer that had been fermenting all year long.

In Rome, a holiday known as "Saturnalia" was celebrated annually to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. During the week leading up to the 21st of December, food and drinks would be consumed in excess and the typical Roman social order would be reversed. Businesses and schools would close so that everyone could take part in the celebration. Originally, Roman pagans wanted the week-long celebration of Saturnalia to be considered Christmas. The problem that many Christians had with this was the fact that the actions that some of the traditions that took place during the celebrations went against the tenants of Christianity. Therefore, an agreement was reached that the concluding day of Saturnalia—which took place on the 25th of December—would be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus.

The Origin of Christmas Carols

Once Christians took over the Roman pagan celebrations, they replaced pagan songs with Christian ones. In the year 129, a Roman bishop said the song "Angel's Hymn" should be sung at Christmas services in Rome. Soon after, there was a songwriting explosion across Europe during which many different songwriters composed Christmas carols. Because most of the carols were written in Latin, most common people were unable to understand them.

Years later, St. Francis of Assisi broke this boundary by holding nativity plays in Italy. The people in these plays sang songs that told a story, and the language was normally more universal than that of the original carols. These updated carols soon began to spread across Europe. Bands of official carol singers were called "waits" and were typically fronted by local leaders who had the authority to take money from the residents of their towns or villages. Waits only sang on Christmas Eve, which was also known as "wait-night." By this time, many orchestras and choirs were being set up in the cities of England because common people wanted Christmas songs to hear and sing along to.

Revamping Christmas Carols

Christmas carols first appeared in the English language in the year of 1426. Priest and poet John Audelay is responsible for this with his list of '25 Carols of Christmas'. By this time some of the first few English language Christmas songs emerged being, 'The 12 Days of Christmas', 'God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen' and 'O Christmas Tree'. In England under Cornwell during the Commonwealth government era, the Rump Parliament prohibited the act of singing Christmas carols seeing it as following the Pagan ways and sinful. At this time all celebrations related to Christmas were prohibited. In 1660, Charles II restored all Christmas customs.

A refreshed admiration for the holiday came about during the Victorian Era, therefore leading to a surge in the creation of newer Christmas songs. Around this time is when songs like 'Silent Night', 'O Holy Night', and 'Up on The Housetop' were created. Older hymns were remastered by adding lyrics or translating lyrics. In 1833, William Sandy published a book containing many of the original classic carols called, 'Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern'. this book contained the first print appearance of English carols and helped the mid-Victorian revival of the holiday.


Christmas Music in America

Christmas music spread to America following immigrant traditions, and gained popularity during the 19th century. In the mid to late 1700's, Moravian or Protestant Germans brought all Christmas traditions to America and songs like 'Silent Night' translated into English.

The Great Depression Era of the 1930's brought on a new wave of American written songs, which mostly veered away from the religious aspect of the holiday by adding Western themes to the lyrics associated with Christmas. Most of the songs originated out of America were geared towards children such as, 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer', and 'Santa Claus is Comin' to Town'. Contemporary style songs like 'Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas' and 'White Christmas' were introduced to the world. The great Depression also marked the "Golden Age" of holiday music thanks to newer technology allowing people to listen to music outside of live performances.

By the mid 1900's, World War II was nearing the end. People were in dire need of better times and homecomings, this is when songs like 'I'll Be Home for Christmas' among others were written. These songs became highly requested and played on the armed forces radios and USO shows.

In order to bring more relevancy to Christmas songs, songwriters began writing songs and allowing popular singers to perform the songs. Judy Garland was among the first to introduce a new holiday song. She did so during her 1944 musical 'Meet Me in St. Louis' by performing the newly written 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'. Following this other popular singers began recording and releasing original Christmas songs, such as Nat King Cole and the King Cole Trio releasing 'The Christmas Song', 'Baby it's Cold Outside' making its debut in the film 'Neptune's Daughter'. A few years later the rock and roll era took over leaving a lot of these releases to be dated and out of style.

Present Day Christmas Music

In 1957, Elvis revamped Christmas songs with the release of his Christmas album. John Lennon and Yoko Ono took their swing at creating a holiday song with 'Happy Xmas (War is Over) which was politically laced in protest over the Vietnam War. The 1980's brought out pop-rock inspired Christmas songs.

By the 1990's through the early 2000's pop took over Christmas songs. This is when Mariah Carey's Christmas album came out along with N*Sync and Britney Spears all featuring classic songs along with originals.

Mariah Carey's 'All I Want for Christmas Is You' coming off of her 1994 Christmas album has gone on to be a holiday classic of its own. This track has been acclaimed by 'The New Yorker' calling it "one of the few worthy modern additions to the holiday cannon". The song had a slow start being virtually unrecognized at the time of its release but each year the song has gone on to chart every single year around the world. 'All I Want for Christmas Is You' has also been made into an animated holiday musical film and has won three Guinness World Records for being one of the best selling and most recognizable Christmas songs.

Over the years new Christmas songs will continue to be created, maybe you are working on the next big hit.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


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