Christmas is unique among holidays in the music we associate with it.
Just think: What other holidays bring to mind so many, and so many different, songs? Outside of church services, Easter has “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” and not much else. Patriotic commemorations like Independence Day or Memorial Day might be celebrated with “The Star Spangled Banner” or “America the Beautiful,” but those and other anthems are not identified with a single holiday. Diehard union organizers might sing “The Internationale” on Labor Day, but even that would be a rarity.
Christmas, on the other hand, has hundreds of songs – some spiritual, some secular, some a strange blend of both – dedicated to it. We hear them on the radio (almost every media market now has at least one FM station that plays Christmas music around the clock starting around Thanksgiving and ending only on December 26), in shops, on street corners, in school pageants, from wandering carolers, and in our own homes.
Christmas songs, it seems, are among the few – besides TV theme songs – that Americans have etched in our memories with the capability of singing by heart, without written notes or lyrics. We know them so well, we think they have been around forever.
Strangely enough, some of those “ancient” songs are newer than we might imagine. Not only that, but many of them became popular despite hardheaded resistance from religious leaders – and I am not talking about opposition to “Rudolph” or “Frosty,” but to deeply spiritual, Bible- or tradition-based hymns that today are more likely to be sung at Midnight Mass than heard on the radio or at the shopping mall. From 1700 until 1782, for instance, only one Christmas hymn – “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” – was permitted to be sung during Anglican church services; in 1782, “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” made the acceptable song list twice as long.
The stories of these, and 98 other, familiar (and some not-so-familiar) Christmas songs are told by church historian Ian Bradley in The Daily Telegraph Book of Carols, published in 2006 as a companion to his The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns (Continuum, 2005). Many would be surprised to learn from Bradley that hymn-singing by congregations during church services is, historically speaking, a rather recent phenomenon. What’s more, “carols” (which used to be songs accompanied by dancing for almost any season of the year, including Lent, Easter, summer, and Christmastime) were particularly looked down upon by the official church.
“Yet although it now seems almost unthinkable to celebrate (or survive) the festive season without them, carols originally had nothing to do with Christmas, nor even with Christianity. They were among the many pagan customs taken over by the medieval church which used them initially as much in the celebration of Easter as of Christmas. The subsequent development of the carol as a distinctive genre standing somewhere between the hymn, the folksong and the sacred ballad and having as its subject matter the story and significance of Jesus’ birth serves as an interesting pointer to several major currents in religious, social and cultural history of the last five hundred years. Born out of late medieval humanism, carols were suppressed by Puritan zealots after the Reformation, partially reinstated at the Restoration, sung by Dissenters and radicals to the distaste of the established churches in the eighteenth century, rediscovered and reinvented by Victorian antiquarians and romantics, and re-written in the late twentieth century to fit the demand for social realism and political correctness. As well as reflecting the mood of their times, some of our best-loved carols also contain coded comments on contemporary events, including, perhaps, the 1745 Jacobite rebellion and the revolutions across Europe in 1848.”Rereading that paragraph from the first two pages of Bradley’s book after having read the whole thing, it becomes remarkably clear that those 205 words serve as a near-complete summation of the 420 pages of text that follow. Bradley has put in a nutshell the whole history of carol-writing and carol-singing. In subsequent chapters, however, he highlights the origins of dozens of carols, some lost in the mists of ancient history, some by composers and lyricists still living in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He offers tidbits of trivia and corrections of misconceptions that deepen our textural appreciation of much-beloved songs of the season.
In the latter category, misconceptions, for instance, the liner notes of many Christmas CDs attribute the words of “Away in a Manger” to Martin Luther. That’s historically unfounded. The first printed record of “Away in the Manger” was when verses one and two were published in Philadelphia in 1885 in the Little Children’s Book for Schools. Verse three was published seven years later in a book called Vineyard Songs. “Away in the Manger,” moreover, is sung to different tunes in Britain and in North America.
One of the favorite hymns on both sides of the Atlantic, “Adeste Fideles” (with its English-language counterpart, “O Come All Ye Faithful”) was long thought to date from the early Middle Ages. Not so, Bradley tells us:
“Until the middle of the twentieth century it was widely believed that this great Latin hymn calling the faithful to worship the newborn Christ was the work of the thirteenth-century mystic Bonaventura. However the discovery of a mid-eighteenth-century manuscript in 1946 by Maurice Frost, vicar of Deddington in Oxfordshire and a noted hymnologist, and research over the next three years by his friend Dom John Stéphan of Buckfast Abbey led both men to conclude that the author of ‘Adeste, fideles’ was John Francis Wade (1711-86).”Here’s where the story gets even more intriguing. After it was determined that Wade wrote the song sometime in the 1750s – it first appeared in print in England in 1760 – more research led to the discovery of the song’s political overtones. Bradley continues:
“In 1990 Bennett Zon, a historian of music, gave a paper to the Catholic Family History Society in which he speculated that ‘Adeste, fideles’ might even have been written as a coded Jacobite call to arms on the eve of the 1745 rebellion. He pointed out that half-hidden Jacobite imagery, including Scottish thistles and the initials of the Stuart pretenders, often appeared in Wade’s musical transcriptions and manuscripts. Twenty years after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden, Wade was still writing ‘Domine salvum fac Regem nostrum Carolum’ rather than ‘Georgium’ for English Catholic congregations to sing.”Such speculation – and, one must admit, the case remains to be proven – is of a piece with Clare Asquith’s theory of William Shakespeare’s crypto-Catholicism in Shadowplay (PublicAffairs, 2006). Asquith makes a persuasive argument that is based on more than marginalia in a few musical manuscripts, however.
Many of us have heard the touching story about the origins of “Silent Night,” perhaps the most beloved – and certainly the most-translated – of Christmas carols. (Even as I write this, I am hearing Tony Bennett sing it on the radio.) Supposedly mice ate the cables of the church organ and the parish priest and organist huddled together to write, as quickly as possible, a song that could be accompanied by guitar at Midnight Mass.
Well, sort of.
Bradley has done some digging and found out that there’s more legend than fact in that tale, though the song is no less delightful for it.
He notes that “Stille Nacht!” (as he calls it, using the original, German title)
“almost certainly deserves the accolade of the world’s favourite carol. It has been translated into 230 languages. It is often voted No. 1 in surveys of the most popular carols in Britain although it was pipped into second place by ‘In the bleak midwinter’ in the 2005 BBC Songs of Praise poll. A Gallup poll in December 1996 found that 21 per cent of respondents named ‘Silent Night’ as their favourite carol – more than twice as many as voted for the joint runners-up, ‘Away in a manger’ and ‘O come, all ye faithful,’ which each received nine per cent.”The legend of “Silent Night” is that it was written and performed for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1818, in the Austrian village of Oberndorf, by musician Franz Gruber and the parish priest, Joseph Mohr.
It turns out, however, that Mohr had written the lyrics, and possibly the music, too, at least two years earlier, while he was still serving at a church in Mariapfarr. “It was there,” Bradley writes, “that he wrote his six-verse carol which is striking in its frequent references to fatherhood and complete absence of references to Mary or motherhood.”
That’s right: in the original German, there is no “round yon virgin.” That line is the invention of John Freeman Young, an Episcopal bishop who gave the song a very free translation in the 1850s, and that is the most familiar translation to come down to us. (Pace Evelyn Waugh, “Episcopal bishop” is not a redundancy, it’s just an Americanism.)
Another tidbit about “Stille Nacht” – it was the subject of what we now call copyright infringement litigation. Bradley continues his story:
“’Stille nacht’ might well have sunk without a trace, alongside hundreds of other Austrian folk carols, had a manuscript copy of it not come into the hands of Josef Strasser, a glove-maker and folk-music enthusiast who had a family singing group in the best ‘Sound of Music’ tradition. The Strasser family performed the piece as a newly discovered Tyrolean folk carol. As a result of a concert they gave in Leipzig in 1832 the carol was published as one of set of four Tyrolean songs. There was no mention of either author or composer in this first printed copy and it was only after recourse to the law that Mohr and Gruber were able to prove their authorship.”The misidentification of a new carol as old and traditional comes up in another of Bradley’s sketches, this one involving “Calypso Carol” (also known by its first line, “See Him Lying On A Bed Of Straw”), written in London in 1964 by Michael Perry, an Anglican clergyman. Bradley reports that Perry “was amused to tune into the radio one day and hear a BBC announcer describe his work as ‘that traditional folk carol from the West Indies.’”
The number of well-known and well-regarded Christmas carols written by clergymen in the 19th and 20th centuries is quite stunning. During the Victorian era, Christmas celebrations were transformed -- depending on whether one was in the low-church or high-church tradition – from an austere day of prayer and mortification and/or a day of drinking and carousing to a family- and especially child-oriented celebration. Anglican priests, in particular, stepped in to write music appropriate to this new tone. A number of familiar Christmas songs were written also by Catholic priests (or Oxford movement Anglicans who later converted to Rome) and Baptist and Unitarian ministers.
In his introduction, Bradley explains:
“Carols played an important role in the Victorian reinvention of Christmas as a largely domestic festival full of sentimentality and good cheer. A huge number of new carols were written in the mid-nineteenth century, many in a pseudo-traditional style. Even the pioneer socialist William Morris provided a pastiche medieval carol with the refrain ‘The snow in the street and the wind at the door’ … It was the Victorians, rather than Bing Crosby, who invented the concept of the White Christmas, bringing snow into the Nativity story with Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the bleak midwinter’ … and Edward Caswall’s ‘See amid the winter snow.’”That may be the primary reason for our assumption, ahistorical as it might be, that Christmas songs are older than old, even if they were written within our lifetimes: the composers have made an effort to make them feel ancient, and the artifice works. Is it doubtful that, a century from now, listeners will think “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “The Little Drummer Boy” are relics of the late Middle Ages?
In a way, I guess, they are.