Christmas Carols > Christmas carols are synonymous with the holiday season and can invoke the Spirit of Christmas in even the most Scrooge-like individuals. Indeed, Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas”, Alvin’s squeaky “Chipmunk Christmas Song” or a group of carolers singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” can bring holiday warmth on the coldest December day.
The Origin of the Christmas Carol > The first carols were religious hymns written about the birth of Christ and included themes such as the nativity, peace, angels, baby Jesus, and the North Star. Beginning with St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), carols have been sung in church to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s said that St. Francis was the first person to set up a manger scene in a church, a model of the stable in which baby Jesus was delivered that included farm animals, shepherds, and three singing wise men.
Christmas Carols around the World > The oldest printed collection of Christmas carols was published in 1521 by Jan van Wynkyn, an Englishman. The book included the “Boar’s Head Carol” which is still sung today.
“Silent Night” was written by an Austrian priest named Fr. Joseph Mohr in the early 19th century and was later translated into hundreds of languages. The popular version of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” was written by Canon Frederick Oakeley of London in 1852, but the origins of the song date back to the 13th century Franciscan St. Bonaventure. A Latin version was also popular in 1744 at vaudeville shows in Paris.
American Carols > “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was written by Phillip Brooks of Boston, Massachusetts, a preacher in the 19th century who became Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts in 1891. He wrote the famous words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” three years after he journeyed to the Holy Land and spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem. Brooks gave the words to his church organist who set them to music on Christmas in 1868. “We Three Kings of Orient Are” dates back to 1857 when John Henry Hopkins wrote the carol for a Christmas pageant at the General Theological Seminary in New York City.
Modern Carols > In recent history, carols have come to tell about not only the nativity, but also secular holiday traditions, including reindeer, snowmen, Santa Claus, and more. Some popular nonreligious carols include Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas Is You,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” by Bruce Springsteen, “Blue Christmas” by Elvis Presley, and “Jingle Bell Rock” by Hall and Oates.
A Christmas carol is a carol (song or hymn) whose lyrics are on the theme of Christmas, or the winter season in general. They are traditionally sung in the period before and during Christmas.
The tradition of Christmas carols goes back as far as the thirteenth century, although carols were originally communal songs sung during celebrations like harvesttide as well as Christmas. It was only later that carols began to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas.
Traditional carols have a strong tune and consist of a verse and/or chorus for group singing. They are often based on medieval chord patterns, and it is this that gives them their uniquely characteristic musical sound. Some carols like ‘Personent hodie’ and ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’ can be traced directly back to the Middle Ages, and are amongst the oldest musical compositions still regularly sung. Carols suffered a decline in popularity after the Reformation, but survived in rural communities until the revival of interest in Carols in the 19th century. Composers like Arthur Sullivan helped to repopularise the carol, and it is this period that gave rise to such favorites as “Good King Wenceslas” and “It Came upon a Midnight Clear.”
Secular songs such as “White Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” are clearly not Christmas carols, though they are also popular in the period before Christmas, and should therefore be considered to be Christmas songs.
Carols can be sung by individual singers, but are also often sung by larger groups, including professionally trained choirs. Most churches have special services at which carols are sung, generally combined with readings from scripture about the birth of Christ, often this is based on the famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Cambridge. Some of these services also include other music written for Christmas, such as Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” (for choir and harp), or excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah.”
There is also a tradition of performances of serious music relating to Christmas in the period around Christmas, including Handel’s “Messiah,” the “Christmas Oratorio” by J. S. Bach, “Midnight Mass for Christmas” by Charpentier, and “L’Enfance du Christ” by Berlioz.
In England there is a tradition of Christmas carolling (earlier known as wassailling), in which groups of singers travel from house to house, singing carols, for which they are often rewarded with money, mince pies, or a glass of an appropriate drink. Money collected in this way is normally given to charity.
Christmas carols can also be played on musical instruments, and another tradition is for brass bands, such as the Salvation Army brass bands, to play carols before Christmas.
As the gentle reader will be aware, the old and perfectly heterosexual English word “gay” has of late years been expropriated by the sodomite, and nowhere has this been more sullying than in the realm of the Christmas carol. Now, when we hear the word “gay” in our joyous carols, we must necessarily envision limp-wristed, lisping, naked, bending men, inserting themselves into one another, or possibly two women kissing on the lips, which is also bad, but not quite as bad as male homosexuality, unless the women are fat.
Of course there is the ancient English standard “Deck the Halls” and its lyric “Don we now our gay apparel”. This glorious sentiment is now fouled by the sodomite, and forces us to imagine a homosexual “gang” pulling on pairs of seatless red leather pantaloons. So henceforth let us replace “gay” with “gray”, which is a fine color, and a decent and respectable color of apparel for a man to don.
Then there is the 20th Century American favorite “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and its lyric “…make the Yuletide gay”. The gentle reader will concur that this now conjures up sickening and hurtful images of sodomites abusing the beloved and sacred things of Christmas time for their sordid ends, such as turning the Yule log into a brown-tipped poker of men. Henceforth let us replace “gay” with “bray”, as in make the Yuletide veritably call out exuberantly, as the ass.
And then there is the neither ancient nor particularly favorite but nonetheless endearing “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and its lyric “…gay happy meetings”. With this the good people of the world have thrust into our innocent minds the specter of a great convergence of sodomites at a steamy Turkish bath, where they strip naked before one another, leer effeminitely at one another’s genitals and buttocks, assemble themselves circularly, call to one another in profane expressions of homosexual admiration, and manipulate themselves. Henceforth, let us replace “gay” with “stray”, as in random, unplanned happy meetings, the likes of which would transpire on familiar streets and places of business and the like, and not bath-houses filled with steam and the hoots of wild sodomites.
Oh, and a Gay [Merry] Christmas to all our gentle readers!
Oh Holy Night by Celine Dion
The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole
There are certain songs so magical, so enchanting, they have the power to put even the worst scrooge in a merry holiday mood.
But for every “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole or “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby, there are also those dreaded songs that have the reverse effect, turning Christmas cheer into holiday jeer as soon as the first note blares from the speaker system.
“Holiday depression is caused by those barking dogs,” insists Scott Frampton, contributing music editor for O, The Oprah Magazine, referring to the semi-humorous, mostly maddening rendition of “Jingle Bells” by the Singing Dogs.
What’s irritating to one ear, however, may be intoxicating to another. If you’ve been delegated to come up with the musical mix for an office party, family gathering or blowout with friends, devising a holiday soundtrack that will leave everyone happy may seem as elusive as a Santa Claus sighting. But music aficionados say it’s doable with good planning and good taste.
“I think people start going wrong when they bring out ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ and those kind of novelty hits, because they wear on people,” says Frampton, who has more than 200 holiday music CDs and creates special-mix CDs for family and friends each year.
“They don’t look around, because they just don’t know that there is a lot of really great stuff out there that would appeal to a lot of different people.”
Indeed, for a genre that’s popular only about two months a year, the variety of holiday music is staggering, from jazz to hip-hop, from comedic to religious. This year alone, artists putting out holiday CDs include R&B songstress Faith Evans, jazz siren Diana Krall, veteran rocker Brian Wilson and country singer Ricky Skaggs.
Herb Agner, vice president of catalog marketing for EMI, which puts out several Christmas albums each year, says there are obvious songs to dust off every holiday season: “White Christmas,” the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Charlie Brown Christmas,” or Elvis Presley’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” are among the enduring favorites.
“Obviously people want the classics,” says Agner. “It’s part of a sense of home and staying a part of something you grew up with.”
At the same time, many people want something fresh and updated; even old-timers get a little weary hearing “Jingle Bell Rock” the umpteenth time.
Frampton suggests mixing some updated renditions from current artists with tried-and-true gems, putting a Destiny’s Child remake of “Silent Night” in the same rotation as Dean Martin’s “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” for example. Or adding Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” after Eartha Kitt’s campy “Santa Baby.”
But picking the right modern-day interpretation of a holiday standard can be tricky, says Ron Zellner, senior vice president of XM Satellite radio, which is adding five different channels of holiday music for the season.
“It’s sort of a Catch-22 that many artists go through when they launch a holiday album because they obviously want to sing songs that are familiar, but they run the risk of people comparing them to these icons,” he says.
Agner’s company has tried to incorporate the best of both with funky, chill-out remixes of old favorites on the new CD “Merry Mixmas.”
“You’re getting those songs and those artists that you know and love, but basically, you’re getting them as a twist, seen through a new set of eyes, and we thought that was a great way of basically having it both ways,” he says.
It’s also important to time the tempo of the evening with the music.
“If it’s a dinner party, where people are going to stay and want to talk throughout the rest of the night, you can’t go too dancey,” says Dahlia Ambach-Caplin, a Verve Records executive and producer of its “Verve Remixed” series, which give jazz classics a modern spin. “People won’t be able to hear one another.”
Frampton agrees. Think about Christmas music as you would any other music when planning the evening, he advises.
“If you were going to have a dinner party … during a salad course, would you have a bunch of rousing singalongs?”
It also might be good to add some non-holiday songs to the rotation.
“Everywhere you go during the holidays, you hear Christmas music ad nauseam,” says Ambach-Caplin. “Not everyone wants to listen to Christmas music all day all the time.”
And as on any other evening of entertaining, it’s important to know your audience and which songs will elicit a knowing smile or a grimace. Cheech & Chong’s “Santa Claus and His Old Lady” might be a riot for your friends, but raise eyebrows at an office party.
Perhaps the worst offense is repetition: As enchanting as “The Christmas Song” is, even Nat King Cole can get stale after a gazillion listens.
“That’s the biggest challenge, for people to find something that they really like that’s fresh,” says Agner. “You don’t want to be only playing ‘Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer’ … Although at the right time, that song might be the perfect thing to throw into the mix.”
THIS YEAR’S HOLIDAY MUSIC ENTRIES
It’s hard to put a new spin on holiday classics like “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night.” Yet every year, several artists try, hoping their rendition may stand out from the crowd and become part of the Christmas musical canon.
A few notable albums from this year’s hopefuls:
Anita Baker, “Christmas Fantasy”, The husky-voiced R&B diva brings her sensual tone to classics ranging from “O Come All Ye Faithful” to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Brian Wilson, “What I Really Want For Christmas”. One of the most melodic rockers takes on melodies including “Silent Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
Jane Monheit, “This Season”
The jazz siren with the lush pipes covers traditional songs like “Have a Merry Little Christmas” and “This Christmas.”
Martha Stewart, “The Holiday Collection”
Can she get any more overexposed? The recently freed felon, who seems to be making up for lost time with two TV talk shows and a host of new products, puts out this three-disc box set. Thankfully, she doesn’t sing. Instead, she selects the best holiday music for your soiree, from traditional pop to jazz to classical. And of course, there are recipes and tips to make your own decorations.
Diana Krall, “Christmas Songs”. Just the cover, which features Krall leaning back in a sexy pose, gives you an idea of the mood the album inspires. Seductive and sassy, Krall is joined here by the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.
The LeeVees, “Hanukkah Rocks”. Plenty of humor, with tracks like “Jewish Girls (at the Matzoh Ball)” and “At the Timeshare.”
Various Artists, “A John Waters Christmas”
Anyone who picks up a Christmas album with an “explicit lyrics” tag on it probably isn’t worried about offending anyone. In fact, that may be the goal. If so, this Christmas CD from director John Waters will more than deliver, with songs like “Happy Birthday Jesus,” “Santa Claus Is a Black Man,” and “Little Mary Christmas.”
Yourself, “U Sing It Christmas”
Hey, why should those “American Idol” kids have all the fun? This album lets you sing Christmas classics and have an instant karaoke party. Pop it into your computer, sing and e-mail it to the universe for a laugh or to become the next Nat King Cole.