The Evolution of Christmas Music

Written by Chase Larson on . Posted in Music

Picture this: amid the bedlam of the city — the hum of restless murmurs and bustling urgency — the din of Sinatra’s rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is playing.

Ephemeral and seemingly transcendent of our current sphere — dotted with street lamps, house-tops and building strewn about — carefully falls the season’s early sparkling snow, one of Mother Nature’s most powerful tools of change. Fleeting memories of simplicity and peace abound, alluring and familiar, like an old refrain.

Few can resist the electric draw of Christmas magic. The thousands of twinkling lights. The idyllic, Norman Rockwell-esque comfort of sitting in front of a fire with loved ones. The evolution of Christmas itself is reflected in the very music that supercharges the season.

Even early on, music was a key component of the Christmas season. In the Middle Ages, the English fused singing with circle dances, dubbing them “carols” — a term that would later come to signify a religious topic sung in a familiar or festive style. Christmas carols soon spread throughout Europe and first appeared in English circa 1426 in priest and poet John Audelay’s 25 “caroles of Cristemas.”

Despite some instances of Puritanical prohibition of Christmas carols and accompanying celebration because of its “pagan and sinful” nature, the dedicatory religious music remained a staple of the period, holding steady its place as one of the foremost tributes to Christmas. William Sandys’ “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” (1833) contained the first print appearance of many currently well-known carols, contributing to the holiday’s mid-Victorian revival. Interestingly enough, despite this musical rundown, just about all surviving Christmas carols only date back to the 19th century at the earliest (with the exception of a few popular tunes such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” and “The Holly and the Ivy”).

Over the last 50 years or so, Christmas as it was — and how we often idealize it — has vastly changed. As society and its accompanying social norms have evolved, so have the tunes we associate with “the most wonderful time of the year.”

Beginning as a “pure” form of Christian adoration but slowly transitioning into a more cultural phenomenon, Christmas music has taken on its own form, aiming (intentionally or otherwise) to capture the “spirit” of the season rather than specifically paying tribute to the religious take on the occasion. Somehow, characters like a radioactive reindeer, thieving green scrooge and mystical snowman have worked their way into our current Christmas lore. Carols, in their purest form, seem present almost exclusively while in the express acts of serenading neighbors door-to-door or within the pews of church nowadays.

Take the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” for example. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything remotely related to the birth of the Son of God or even representative of a generalized Christmas sentiment here. In jovial fashion, the song follows the back-and-forth of a man attempting to coax a woman into taking full advantage of the mistletoe — using alcohol and other means to do so. And so it goes, as Billy says. The Christmas culture comments on itself, coming full circle.

Many secular songs today — or even over the last 50 years — generate a “Christmas music” label with what appears to be few credentials, at least comparative to the carols of yore. The lyrics of “Sleigh Ride” mention only a birthday party and snow. “Jingle Bells” was originally penned to celebrate Thanksgiving. Oftentimes, only a wintry theme or arbitrary addition of backing sleigh bells clear a tune for our Christmas playlists.

These facts aren’t meant to persuade you to reexamine your Christmas listening habits (unless you’re listening to Celine Dion, that is), but rather to reflect on how our society has changed and identify what now qualifies Christmas music as, well, Christmas music. The operative question to me is: what elements make certain music staples of the season?

Increasingly, it seems as though seasonal cheer is equaled by outrage. In fairly recent years, with the evolutionary music shift, Christians have been up in arms about this secularization — dubbed by many, the “War on Christmas.” Opposing that call for more traditional and spiritual respect, others strive for their independence of belief — wanting to celebrate the season sans religion.

Though we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking both sides are exclusively aggravated and out for blood, the truth of the matter is that there are many more of us in the gray area, undecided about what to make of this change. I can understand the arguments presented by both groups, but I think there’s an equilibrium to be reached while still retaining those personal elements that make the season uniquely special to each of us.

In an op-ed column for the New York Times last winter, Jewish musician Michael Feinstein said, despite his respect for the general Christian disappointment of having a religious tradition eroded by commercialization (though most of us are guilty of taking part in that) and those without a faith in Jesus Christ, he hopes we can all reach some level of understanding regarding the season’s universal spirit. Today, and in a country becoming increasingly diverse, traditions are inevitably mixing. (As an example, look at the prolific Christmas music produced by American Jews: for example, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “Santa Baby,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Winter Wonderland,” among others).

“It doesn’t take Freud to figure out that the sugar plums, holly and mistletoe all tap into a sense of comfort, longing, security and peace that so many fervently desire; that we all wish the clichés were true,” Feinstein said. “As Jews, Christians, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists and everything in between, we are all more alike than we are different. That’s something to celebrate.”

Maybe I’m just a hopeless Christmas romantic, but I, myself, don’t necessarily find anything wrong with the smorgasbord of Christmas music we now possess. Will I be listening to “Silent Night” more often than “Santa Baby?” You better believe it. Regardless, at the heart of the music — and the holidays — lie the basic Christian ideals universally known and applied, regardless of belief system or religious persuasion. We all share common ground in our struggles to become better people, showing kindness to others and spending time with loved ones.

Quoth the Grinch (one of those previously mentioned fabricated characters), “maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

 

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