Ella Crowsley delves into the history behind some of our favorite holiday tunes
It’s that time of year again! The time where moans upon hearing those infamous opening notes of ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ turns into belting out every lyric with glee. As the year comes to a close, it seems that the emergence of Christmas music hints at the celebrations yet to come, offering us a sense of relief and pure delight in a way that no other single genre has the ability to. Even those who claim their dislike for Christmas music seem to know every word to the classics and can’t help but tap along when they are played. There’s just something about Christmas music that brings joy! It appears in a variety of genres and themes, from Christ’s nativity to Santa, and to simple songs set around the Christmas season. So, where did this tradition of Christmas music come from, and how has it progressed through the years?
Music associated with Christmas is thought to have originated in 4th Century Rome, through Latin hymns praising the birth of Christ. By the 13th Century, translations and hymns in alternative native languages had appeared, offering those across the world the chance to rejoice in the nativity. Similarly, the invention of Christmas carols appeared through the work of John Awdlay in 1426 as an act of Proselytism, an attempt to spread the news of Christ’s birth from house to house and convert others to Christianity. The word is supposed to derive from the French carole, a dance accompanied by singing. By the 16th Century, carols that we know and love today had started to appear, including ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’. Music soon became one of the greatest tributes to Christmas, often composed by some of the best musicians of the time.
However, with the rise of Puritanism, in mid-17th century England Christmas music was in fact banned. To Cromwell and his followers, singing and related Christmas festivities were not only abhorrent but actually sinful, as it held no biblical justification. For this reason, they believed that Christmas music threatened core Christian beliefs. In a strange turn of events, Christmas music went underground, as families continued to celebrate in secret. In fact, some of the most well-known Christmas songs were composed at this time, such as ‘Hark! The Herald Angels sing’ and ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. Critics of the time suggested that music like this can be so touching and affecting, particularly in the worship of Christ, people could not stop singing.
When, in May 1660, Charles II restored the Stuarts to the throne, the public practice of singing Christmas music began again. Interestingly, Christmas music of this era shifted to focus on St Nicholas and other gift-bringers. Songs like ‘Up on the Housetop’ appeared and traditional sacred hymns began to transition to the style of Christmas music we recognise today.
Since the mid-50s, many Christmas songs have been produced simply for popular consumption, focusing largely on romantic relationships, using Christmas merely as a setting. However, a lot of more recent Christmas songs are in some way reminiscent of Christmas traditions and celebrations such as mistletoe, presents, and Christmas trees. In fact, many titles attempt to define some of the more mythical aspects of modern Christmas traditions like reindeers and Santa Claus.
In 2016, ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) released a list of the 30 most played holiday songs of the last 50 years, and the results are unsurprising. ASCAP President commented that “music reminds us that the holidays are supposed to be about togetherness and good cheer. These classics perfectly capture those themes''. The list reveals 30 quintessential songs, of which I’m sure most people know every word to! Topping the list is ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ by Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. Written in 1934, this song has been reinvented multiple times and recorded by over 200 artists, including Bing Crosby, Mariah Carey, Bruce Springsteen, and Frank Sinatra. It’s unsurprising that this is the song that tops the charts! Coming in at second is ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin (1944) and ‘Winter Wonderland’ by Felix Bernand (1934) is at third. Interestingly, Mariah Carey with ‘All I want for Christmas is You’, the youngest song on the list comes in at number 15. Perhaps this implies that songs need time to work their way into ‘the classics’.
Contrastingly in the UK, PRS for Music (Performing Right Society) conducted their own survey, revealing some more traditionally British Christmas Songs. Ranking number 1, perhaps unsurprisingly is ‘Fairytale of New York’ by The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl (1987). Similarly, Band Aid’s 1984 ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ comes in at number 3, and ‘Happy Christmas (War is Over)’ by John Lennon is in 7th.
So, what is it that makes a good Christmas song? What is it that makes a simple song about Christmas a so-called ‘classic? Of the ASCAP’s top 30 most played songs of the last 50 years, 55% of songs were by solo artists, 65% by men and 25% characterised as ‘rock’ (more than any other genre). From this sample, we may assume that the best Christmas songs would be rock songs by a solo male singer. Yet, we all know that this isn’t true! Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of Christmas music is the complete mix of artists and styles that appear each year!
Some even suggest that the aspect that makes Christmas songs feel ‘Christmassy’ is actually the minor chords. This feels counterintuitive as most Christmas songs feel so happy and upbeat! And yet, many of them are scattered with minor or diminished chords throughout a piece that’s otherwise in a major key, enhancing that Christmas feeling. This concept can be seen all the way from modern Christmas pop songs, back to Tchaikovsky’s instrumental compositions. Others suggest that simply the use of sleigh bells in a song makes it Christmassy, no matter what the song is! These bells often offer no musical value at all, but they offer the archetypal Christmas noise that we all recognise.
For some people, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without Christmas music! Some argue that this is because of the ‘exposure effect’, the suggestion that the more we hear a song, the more likely we are to love it. As we only hear these songs for a few weeks each year, it’s difficult to hear them ‘too much’. Many of us relate Christmas music to spending time with family, good food, presents, or even just having some time off. For whatever reason, it seems clear that Christmas songs bring joy to people, and with more and more people appreciating the nostalgia factor that comes with it, it seems that Christmas music is here to stay!