I love Advent and Christmas music (for this post, I’ll simply call them both Christmas music). There are so many beautiful Christmas melodies and texts. There are songs that convey both the longing and hope of Advent and the celebration of Christmas. Listening to this music, at different times I feel yearning, heaviness, hope, comfort, or joy. I listen with solemn quietness, I sing along with enthusiasm, or I dance with delight. Christmas music also warms my heart as it fills me with a sense of love and connection with my mom. She loves Christmas music too, and a lot of the music I listen to now I first listened to with my mom when I was growing up.
Christmas music has held this significance for me for years. The beauty, sacredness, and memories of this music have been striking to me. And yet, my appreciation for Christmas music has deepened even more over the last few years as I have learned more about the rich history of it. Some of our Christmas songs have histories dating back hundreds of years! Handel’s Messiah incorporates musical elements from several traditions.
The text of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has its roots in the O Antiphons, which are seven texts originally in Latin that each begin with a different name for Christ, such as O Wisdom, O King of the Nations, and O Emmanuel. Boethius, a Roman philosopher, showed some familiarity with the language of the O Antiphons in the sixth century, suggesting their presence as far back as then! The melody of this song comes from a 15th-century chant!
The tune of “What Child is This?” is called “Greensleeves.” Shakespeare mentioned this tune twice in a play he wrote in 1597, so it was popular enough back then that his audience would have known the reference. Around this time, the Greensleeves tune was used with all sorts of texts to make both political and religious points. The text of “What Child is This?” was written by marine insurance salesman and hymn writer William Chatterton Dix around 1865. The text was paired with the Greensleeves tune in 1871.
Messiah, an absolute masterpiece written by Handel, was written in 1741. All of the text is taken from the Bible. The text tells the story of redemption, beginning with the Old Testament prophecies and going through the life of Christ to his resurrection. Typical of Handel, the music of Messiah uses a mixture of traditions, including the French overture, Italianate recitatives and da capo arias, Germanic choral fugues, and English choral anthem style.
Additionally, Christmas music is a rare example of oral tradition in Canada outside of Indigenous cultures. We hear Christmas songs in church, on the radio, and at Christmas gatherings, so we come to learn them without studying them. We just know them.
This oral tradition in itself is special, and on top of that, this also connects us to the tradition of carolling and the history that led to that. In the 16th century, the word “carol” began to be applied to songs with a seasonal connection. The 18th century saw the beginning of congregational hymn singing, which gave us hymns like “While Shepherds Watched.” In the mid-19th century, folklorists began collecting and publishing native folk songs, and several books were devoted to Christmas carols. In the early 20th century, people would go out into streets to sing folk carols. Singing merrily from door to door was familiar and widespread. Most of the books and ballad sheets that people took with them didn’t have melodies written out. The oral tradition was so well established that just the name of the tune would be enough. Similarly, we still know a lot of Christmas songs through oral tradition today.
Christmas songs have evolved, have had multiple influences, and have had many variations in texts and melodies over time. Our Christmas music is not part of an unchanging tradition, yet we can see that much of our Christmas music has a long, rich history. It is incredible that on top of the wonderful music, the story of Christ, and the memories found in Christmas music, the music also comes from and connects us to such a rich history.
Gant, Andrew. The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015.
Burkholder, J. P., Donald J. Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. Edited by Maribeth Payne. 8th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.