If you didn’t already know, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday season, unrelated to Christianity itself. Centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, Europeans celebrated the winter solstice with light and birth in the darkest of winter. The end of the year was also the time that many families had fresh meat to eat as most livestock were slaughtered so they need not be fed during winter. Many people would turn the dark and cold on Christmas into a time of feasting by enjoying wine or beer that had been fermented all year long. Pagan songs were sung. Today, Christmas is a mix of pagan and Christian traditions, but where do Christmas songs come from?
How Christmas Became A Christian Holiday
Romans had an annual celebration yearly to honour Saturn and the holiday was known as “Saturnalia”. In the week leading to the 21st of December, food and drinks would be consumed in excess and the typical Roman social order would be reversed. Schools and businesses would be closed so that everyone could take part in the celebration.
The Roman pagans wanted Saturnalia to be considered Christmas, but the Christians were opposed to it because some of the traditions of the celebration went against Christianity. It was then agreed that the concluding day of Saturnalia on December 25, would be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus.
The Origin of Christmas Carol
After taking over the Roman pagan celebrations, the Christians replaced pagan songs with Christian ones. In the year A.D. 129, a Roman bishop declared that the song “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung during Christmas service in Rome. Soon after, songwriting for Christmas exploded across Europe and many Christmas carols were produced. As most of the Christmas carols were written in Latin, most people did not understand them.
St. Francis of Assisi broke with tradition and began holding nativity plays in Italy many years later. The actors in these plays sang songs that told stories in languages that is more universal as compared to the original carols. These updated carols soon began to spread across Europe. Bands of official carol singers were called “waits” and were fronted by local leaders who were authorised to collect money from the residents of their towns or villages. The waits only sang on Christmas Eve and it became known as “wait-night”. At this time, choirs and orchestras sprang up in the cities of England because the common people wanted to sing along to and listen to Christmas songs.
Christmas Carol in England
In the year 1426, Christmas carols in the English language began to appear thanks to the priest and poet John Audelay, who was responsible for his list of “25 Carols of Christmas”.
Some of the first few English language Christmas songs emerged, such as “The 12 Days of Christmas”, “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”, and “O Christmas Tree”. During the Commonwealth government era in the time of Cornwell, the singing of Christmas carols was prohibited as it was seen as a pagan tradition and sinful. However, Charles II restored all Christmas customs in 1660.
A surge of new Christmas songs was created during the Victorian Era. Songs like “Silent Night”, “O Holy Night”, and “Up on The Housetop” were created. Older hymns were remastered by adding lyrics or translating them. William Sandy in 1833 published a book “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern”, containing many of the original classic carols. The book contained the first printed edition of English carols and helped the mid-Victoria revival of the holiday.
Christmas Carol in America
Christmas carols gained popularity in America during the 19th century thanks to the migrants. In the mid to late 1700s, Moravian or Protestant Germans brought all Christmas traditions to America where songs like “Silent Night” was translated into English.
The Great Depression in the 1930s brought on newly American-written Christmas carols where the religious aspect of the holiday was removed and Western themes to the lyrics associated with Christmas were added. Most of the Christmas carols in America were directed at children with songs such as “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer:, and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”. Contemporary Christmas songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “White Christmas” were introduced to the world. Despite many people losing their fortune during the Great Depression, the era marked the “Golden Age” of holiday music thanks to newer technology.
In order to make Christmas songs relevant to the masses, songwriters began writing songs and getting popular singers to perform them. In 1944, Judy Garland became one of the first to sing Christmas carols and make it popular in her musical “Meet Me in St. Louis”. She sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”/ Soon, other popular singers follow suit. Nat King Cole and his band released their original “The Christmas Song”, and “Baby, it’s Cold Outside”, which was featured in the film “Neptune’s Daughter”. A few years later, the advent of rock and roll era left many of these releases to be dated and out of style.
Christmas Songs in the Modern Era
From the 1990s to the 2000s, pop music began to take over the release of new Christmas songs. Mariah Carey released her Christmas album along with N’Sync and Britney Speas who all featured classic songs along with originals.
Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” from her 1994 Christmas album became a Christmas hit on its own. The track was praised by “The New Yorker” as a worthy modern addition to the holiday canon. The song has gone on to chart every single year around the world and has won three Guinness World Records for being one of the best-selling and most recognisable Christmas songs.
We have come far with the creation of Christmas carols since its beginnings. The history of the Christmas carol continues to be made as we look forward to more hits from the modern era.