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!
For those of you who don’t share my enthusiasm for kitsch, Pitchfork‘s compiled a list of top new Christmas ditties you can listen to, by artists like The Killers, The Knife, Sufjan Stevens and Willie Nelson. The link to The Killers’ A Great Big Sled isn’t available in Oz so check that one out on YouTube.
You can also listen to the HypeMachine‘s great aggregate of Christmas songs by the likes of The Flaming Lips, Coldplay, The Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian, Loretta Lynn, Snow Patrol, The Beatles, Weezer, The Kinks, Otis Redding, Death Cab for Cutie, Run DMC… and, er, Oscar the Grouch and the Swedish Chef.
Beck, Chris Martin and their animal friends have also got a Christmas concert for you to watch.
For the purists, there’s always Christmas karaoke.
Enjoy! ….. and a Merry Christmas to you all!
For most of us, Christmas music is bound up with that nice mixture of emotional wooziness and enjoyable aching in the throat you get at a carol service.
Nostalgia is really the keynote of much Christmas music. Bing Crosby’s White Christmas sets the tone. It’s all about harking back to a time when there was more true togetherness, and more proper snow.
But out beyond Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Bing there’s a vast treasure of Christmas music that doesn’t sound nostalgic at all. Go back to the earliest Christmas songs, and you find a lusty heartiness that lives in the moment.
The feast of Christmas was overlaid on pagan festivals celebrating the winter solstice, and in things such as the Wassail Song and the Boar’s Head Carols you can feel a pagan energy.
The Holly and the Ivy seems decorous enough now, but in the 14th century it was a danced and sung word game full of bawdy double entendres, the prickly holly was man, the twining ivy was woman. Two centuries later Henry VIII added to this repertoire with his carol Green Grow’th the Holly.
By this time there was already a millennium and a half of Christmas music in the Church, but it had no particular Christmas flavour. Come forward in time, though, and one simple “Christmassy” quality reveals itself: splendour.
This is the most joyous festival in the calendar, so it was only right that the clergy should put on their best vestments, the church should be full of candles and flowers, and the musicians should put on the best possible show.
“Splendour” at first meant towering vocal polyphony. One of the first surviving polyphonic pieces, Pérotin’s Viderunt omnes, has a Christmas text. But as you move forward into the Renaissance and Baroque, splendour means colour and contrast and drama. And that means telling the Christmas story in music, which gives lots of scope for human and picturesque touches.
In Heinrich Schütz’s Christmas Story, composed around 1660, the angel’s words are haloed in strings, the shepherds are signalled by “rustic” recorders and bassoons, the wise men have solemn trombones, and Herod is accompanied by trumpets. This is the beginning of a line of big festive pieces that leads to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah, which wasn’t written to celebrate Christmas, but was bound to be co-opted into the season’s music, given its subject matter.
So far, so predictable. But what about those Baroque instrumental pieces such as Corelli’s Christmas Concerto? What have they got to do with Christmas?
A clue is given by an old Italian custom you can still see in Rome between Christmas and New Year. Musicians in rustic dress come into the main squares to play plangent melodies on the piffero and zampogna, shawm and bagpipe.
They’re students at the Accademia, mostly, and you can see the trainers peeping out under their “shepherds” smocks. It’s a touching sound, though, and a reminder of a link between Christmas and the pastoral. In painting, it’s the three wise men with their gorgeous robes who get pride of place in nativity scenes. But it’s the shepherds who call the tune in Christmas music. Baroque composers left us hundreds of gently lilting Christmas pastorals, the most famous ones being Corelli’s and the one in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.
Once the middle class takes centre stage in history, Christmas music becomes well behaved. The pastoral tone and the tipsiness disappear, apart from odd moments such as Tchaikovsky’s Second Quartet, where there’s an amusing portrayal of the Russian custom of drunken Christmas visits in costume.
Instead, we get cosily domestic Christmas music, written for instruments such as the piano and harmonium. But this isn’t yet nostalgia, the emotion is still real, and strong. If you doubt that, listen to Arnold Schoenberg’s Weihnachtsmusik.
You won’t believe that that fearsome inventor of “modern music” could have written something so exquisite and touching.
The carols are: Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Silent Night, In the Bleak Midwinter, O Come, all ye Faithful, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Once in Royal David’s City, God Rest ye Merry, Gentlemen, It Came upon the Midnight Clear, Coventry Carol and Away in a Manger.
To download the carol backing music, right-click on the button next to ‘download,’ choose ‘Save target as …’ and save the sound file to your computer.
It’s Christmastime. Time to release a holiday album, that is. This season’s list includes such easy-listening choices as James Taylor at Christmas and Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong, the big hit of the bunch, as well as convivial outings from out-of-the-blue sources such as hair-metal band Twisted Sister, Parliament funkateer Bootsy Collins, and rapper Jim Jones.
The song list that follows fills up one CD with recommended revelries. All songs are either brand-new or chestnuts available on 2006 reissues. Everything’s available on iTunes, except where noted.
1.”The Winter Solstice,” Sufjan Stevens. Evocative instrumental from the wunderkind behind the 50 States project comes from Songs for Christmas (Asthmatic Kitty), a budget-priced, five-CD, 35-song box that’s this year’s stocking-stuffer standout.
2.”White Christmas,” Bing Crosby. Der Bingle, arranged by Nelson Riddle, off Christmas Classics (Capitol).
3. “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” Dean Martin. One suspects that a hot toddy also helped the effortless crooner heat up. From Christmas With the Rat Pack (Capitol).
4. “A Great Big Sled,” The Killers. Over-the-top Las Vegans climb aboard with Santa for this iTunes single. Proceeds go to Bono’s RED campaign to fight disease in Africa.
5. “Winter Wonderland,” Aretha Franklin. Vintage ‘Retha, available on the inevitable Rachael Ray’s How Cool Is That Christmas (Sony).
6. “Up on the Housetop,” Jackson 5. Preadolescent Michael leads his brothers in pleading their case with Saint Nick. On the hit-or-miss Now That’s What I Call Christmas, Vol. 3 (Strategic Marketing).
7. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” James Taylor. Sweet Baby James does justice to the bittersweet classic, from James Taylor at Christmas (Columbia).
8. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Ellis Marsalis. Crescent City jazz patriarch tickles the ivories on this jaunty instrumental. From New Orleans Christmas (Putomayo).
9. “Santa’s Second Line,” New Birth Brass Band. Kris Kringle gets Big Easy funeral party treatment. Also from New Orleans Christmas.
10. “Wish List,” Jim Jones. Harlem rapper brings the real, wonders if it’s “the proper way to spend the holidays / Locked down upstate a hundred miles away?” From A Dipset Christmas (Koch).
11.”Merry Christmas Baby,” Bootsy Collins. The P-Funk bass man has a funkalicious way with Charles Brown’s classic. “I haven’t had a drink this morning / But I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree.” From the delectable Christmas Is 4 Ever (Shout Factory).
12. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” Twisted Sister. Dee Snider brings heavy metal thunder on A Twisted Christmas (Razor & Tie). Amusing in small doses.
13. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” Wynonna Judd. Country belter plays it straight on the solid A Classic Christmas (Curb).
14. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Rhonda Vincent. Brenda Lee goes bluegrass. From Beautiful Star: A Christmas Collection (Rounder).
15. “Jingle Bells,” Brad Paisley. Underrated axman cuts loose on honky-tonk instrumental, from the top-notch Brad Paisley’s Christmas (Arista).
16. “Christmas All Over the World,” Sammy Davis Jr. Holiday kitsch, with a multilingual children’s chorus. From Christmas With the Rat Pack.
17. “(It’s Good to Be) A Jew at Christmas,” Good for the Jews. “It’s clear we’re the chosen ones / We get eight nights, you only get one.” Humorous duo play the Tin Angel tonight. www.myspace.com/goodforthejews.
18. “Christmas Morning,” Loudon Wainwright III. Rufus’ dad takes a contemplative look around at a world where “there is sand, there are camels, but where are the wise men?” From Midwinter, an estimable four-CD set on the British Free Reed label.
19. “Cool Yule,” Bette Midler. The Divine Miss M sashays through Steve Allen-penned big-band title cut of her seasonal CD (Columbia).
20. “River,” Sarah McLachlan. Sorrowful thrush expresses disconsolate solidarity with fellow Canuck composer Joni Mitchell. On Wintersong (Arista).
21. “Christmas Light,” the dBs. Indie-rock heroes return with an expanded version of the 1986 holiday gem, Christmas Time Again (Collector’s Choice).
22. “Christmastime,” Aimee Mann. Adult alternative heroine sings hubby Michael Penn’s song, from the predictably melancholy and pleasurable One More Drifter in the Snow (Superego).
23. “Get Behind Me, Santa!” Sufjan Stevens. A horn-happy, hand-clapping play on the satanic title of the last White Stripes album spreads good cheer.
24. “I Believe,” Frank Sinatra. The Chairman keeps the faith, swings hard. From Christmas With the Rat Pack.
25. “My Dear Acquaintance (A Happy New Year),” Peggy Lee. No Auld Land Syne, please. Fond wishes for a healthy and happy 2007, from Christmas With Peggy Lee (Capitol).
Cliff has made it to number one twice before at Christmas as a solo artist
Sir Cliff Richard has launched his traditional bid for the Christmas Number One slot.
He’s released 21st Century Christmas and if he does beat Take That and the X Factor winner to the top of the charts, he’ll have had a Number One in every one of the past six decades.
He’s made it twice before as a solo artist and once with The Shadows.
He didn’t release a Christmas single last but this time he’s come up with a ditty that mentions mobile phones, text messages and DVDs.