Exploring Music's Complexities

Origins of Holiday and Christmas Music

Holiday and Christmas Music


Now that we have experienced Black Friday and Cyber Monday it’s time to think about listening to Holiday music. Christmas music, which has been a seasonal staple for centuries, had its earliest beginnings as chants, litanies, and hymns intended for use during the church liturgy. History isn’t clear as to when the first carol appeared but it was supposedly written in the vernacular sometime between 1350 and 1550.  During that time the English combined circle dances with lyrics and referred to them as carols. Later on the carol came to be associated with religious celebrations (1).The early Christmas carols remained popular until the Commonwealth of England government came under the control of Cromwell. He and the Puritans prohibited the practice of singing Christmas carols for they believed that their origins were Pagan and sinful. When Charles II came to power in 1660, he permitted the English people to once more sing Christmas carols in public (2). Singing carols as part of religious celebrations were once again permitted beginning on Christmas Eve 1880 (3). This period has been referred to as the “golden age of English carols that followed the verse-refrain pattern” (1).

Traditional Christmas Carols

Given the exhaustive list of popular carols it would be impossible to name them all here.  For those interested in such data the lyrics and some interesting information regarding the most popular Christmas songs are included on the website referenced below, together with additional sections dedicated to classic carols, festive songs and music and traditional Christmas poems.  (http://www.carols.org.uk/christmas_songs_index.htm)

For those who are interested in folklore, there is a claim that The Twelve Days of Christmas was written as a coded reference to important articles of the Christian faith (http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/music/12days.asp).  It’s well worth a look.

Christmas Classics

As the importance of the celebration of Christmas grew, it meant there was a need for special music, and it is safe to say that some of the finest compositions by great musicians resulted from this association. While the list below presents only a fraction of the season’s great compositions, it is representative of those that have lasted over the centuries. If the reader disagrees with the choices, please remember that the selection of favorites is a very personal thing.

George Frideric Handel: Messiah (1741). As you listen, you will note something striking about the purity of this aria. The London Symphony Orchestra has a Youtube page with Mark Padmore singing the aria and the page also includes a performance of the chorus “For unto us a child is born.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NCO6UzZ2R8&lis) (4).

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a joyous, child-like, complicated composition. It’s impossible to pick a favorite moment; here is a performance of it by the Monteverdi Choir. (5).

“L’enfance du Christ” (“The Childhood of Christ”), is an oratorio by French 19th-century composer Hector Berlioz. The piece—L’adieu des Bergers, or “The Shepherd’s Farewell”—is sung by a chorus of shepherds bidding goodbye to the baby Jesus as the Holy Family departs for Egypt.
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0vO4LDImrc)  (6).

Franz Schubert’s Ellens dritter Gesang (Ave Maria)
Ave Maria was written when Schubert was 28, as part of a larger opera. It continues to be the most popular and is by far the best of the many versions. The opening harp arpeggios gracefully set the stage for a strong voice that lasts throughout which gives certain strength to the song that most classical Holiday pieces lack. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNUEx2jV1fc)  (7).

Arcangelo Corelli’s Christmas Concerto grosso in G minor, op.6 no. 8, was commissioned by a priest. The final, famous, Pastorale ad libitum, continues to be a favorite. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFsH9n6iU2I ) (8).

POP Christmas

Often, songs we consider to be on the lighter side of Christmas music are adaptations of compositions written for other purposes. Examples of these songs include “Jingle Bells”, Sleigh Ride, and “Auld Lang Syne”.  Novelty songs are extremely numerous and are popular with radio listeners. According to ASCAP, five of the ten most-played holiday songs from October 1 to December 12, 2012 are listed below.  To view and listen to the complete list, visit (http://www.ascap.com/press/2012/1212-ascap-members-reign-over-top-ten-most-played)

  1.  Sleigh Ride
  2. Winter Wonderland
  3. Let It Snow!
  4. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
  5. Santa Clause is Coming to Town

In the past, playing of Christmas music began after the late-November Thanksgiving weekend. However, in recent years, there has been a tendency for the length of the Christmas and holiday season to grow. This “creep” is producing a positive effect on the global music industry’s revenues that have crashed more than 40 percent since its 1999 peak. This year’s figures, which show a rise in global revenue from $16.4 billion in 2011 to $16.5 billion in 2012, are the first hint of growth in more than a decade (10).


  1. Estrella, Espie. History of Christmas Carols. http://musiced.about.com/od/christmasnewyeararticles/a/carols.htm
  2. Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania, 50th Anniversary Edition. Mechanicsburg, PA . p.xvii. Stackpole Books; 50 Anv edition (August 11, 2009).
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/charles_ii_king.shtml
  4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7NCO6UzZ2R8&list=PLGPL0cdFkr6y6zvSWCx-g3Mhvod5rCVQn
  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFnW_CrPUlA
  6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–n5YJlBqFk
  7. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNUEx2jV1fc
  8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFsH9n6iU2I.
  9. http://www.ascap.com/press/2012/1212-ascap-members-reign-over-top-ten-most-played-holiday-songs-list.aspx
  10. http://www.spokesman.com/…/global-music-industry-singing-a-happier-tune      Holiday Music


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