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December 31, 2004

The Invention of Tradition: Christmas Carol Department

Chad Orzel writes about traditions without realizing the extent to which they are invented:


Uncertain Principles: Right at the start, I'd like to say that I really like the distinction Tris McCall makes (via Bill Higgins) between Christmas carols and Christmas music:

Christmas carols are very old, and are by and large about Jesus. Christmas music is mostly from the latter half of the Twentieth Century, and generally replaces Jesus with Santa Claus.

I think this is dead on, and while he goes on to really badly overanalyze the whole Santa/Jesus thing, the basic distinction is a very useful one. Taking the two groups separately, the problem with the Santa-positive Christmas music is that most of it is either insipid, or crass, or both. Add in the fact that the whole Sinatra/ Crosby/ Cole crooner thing doesn't do much for me, and, well, there's not much here for me to like. There are some songs whose craftsmanship I can admire, and some really disgustingly effective earworms, but by and large, I just don't care for this whole class of stuff.

Which brings us to the Christmas carols. These start in a slightly uneasy position, given that they tend to be explicitly religious, and I'm, well, not. But then Christmas really is a religious holiday, so I'm actually more or less OK with that. To be honest, I'd prefer more angels singing to shepherds and fewer chestnuts roasting on sleigh rides.<

The problem with the carols isn't really with the songs themselves, so much as the way they're presented. My parents have a big collection of Christmas CD's and tapes, mostly put together by Hallmark, and they all do the same thing: they try to turn "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" into Bach. Big orchestras, complicated arrangements, huge choirs with lots of different parts running simultaneously. They take simple songs, and try to render them into spectacle. And for me, that really misses the whole point....

Christmas carols... survived through the years (or just became popular in the first place) not because they're grand and timeless explorations of the best that orchestral music has to offer, but because they're catchy, memorable, and can be sung effectively by large groups of people who don't necessarily have any musical ability.... Tarting these songs up with big choirs and complicated arrangements drains all the life out of them. It takes a moving participatory number, and attempts to turn it into Art.... "Joy to the World" is impressive when sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir backed up by the London Philharmonic. But it's moving when belted out by tone-deaf farmers as the recessional at Midnight Mass. They don't have the technical ability of professionals, but it means enough to them to be standing there singing at one in the morning, and that's worth a lot. You lose that when you add the strings and the nineteen different vocal parts.

And that's the problem with most recorded Christmas carols: they take simple songs, and make them needlessly complicated. They turn what ought to be a participatory experience into something where it seems almost rude to sing along, if you can even manage it....

I suspect that most Christmas carols are much newer than Chad Orzel realizes. Of the three he mentions, "Joy to the World" dates from 1848, the "Cantique de Noel" from the 1830s, and only "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is something that Richard III might have heard (but might not). Here are some claims as to origins:

Carols of the Nativity by Phillip Lester: 1. O Come, All Ye Faithfu: While the origin of the words remains uncertain, the melody is credited to John Reading (1692), an English composer and organist at Winchester College. In 1751, John Francis Wade, an English priest and music copyist working in France, combined the Latin words with Reading's music resulting in the hymn known in Latin as "Adeste Fidelis". It was first publicly performed in London at the Portuguese embassy and thus it became known as the "Portuguese hymn" 

2. Angels We Have Heard on High: The words began as a poem by James Montgomery which he printed in his newspaper on Christmas eve in 1816 in Sheffield, England. The melody was composed by a blind composer and organist, Henry Smart. The original title, "Regent Square", was named after the location of St. Phillips Church where Smart was organist.  The words and music were first published together in a collection of carols in 1855. 

3. It Came upon a Midnight Clear: When American composer Richard Willis (1819-1900) composed this melody he referred to it as "Study no. 23." Coincidentally, in the same year (1849), Edmund Sears (1810-1876), a minister in Wayland, Massachusetts, wrote  words for a Christmas song reflecting upon that winter season and the sobering reality that the country was on the verge of civil war. With that background, the glorious song of "peace on earth, good will toward men" takes on added significance.  The words and music were joined together in 1850.  

4. Away in a Manger: Although sometimes known as Luther's Cradle Hymn, there is no basis for the legend that Martin Luther both composed and sang it to his children. The song originated in America in the mid 1800's.  It remains an anonymous carol considered a traditional, universal Christmas lullaby telling the story of the nativity with gentle and sweet imagery. While the words have been set to several different melodies, one of its  most popular settings  is Flow Gently Sweet Afton which has been incorporated into the introduction of this instrumental arrangement.

5. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel: This melody has its origin in a Gregorian Chant.  The version we are most familiar with came from Thomas Helmore, who in 1854, adapted this haunting melody from a Latin hymn.  The words go back 800 years to a style  called Plainsong from the days before written music. It was often sung without harmony or strict meter by monks in the seven days leading up to the Christmas service. On each evening the song would be sung, a different Biblical name of the Messiah would be substituted in the opening verses including Emmanuel or Immanuel  meaning "God with us" according to the  Old Testament prophecy  (Isaiah  7:14 and  9:6).

6. We Three Kings: The words and music were both composed by John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891). Hopkins was a poet, composer, church rector, and designer of stained glass windows.  This carol was one of several he wrote for an annual children's Christmas pageant. Though written in 1857, it was thought to be taken from an anonymous medieval composition because of its unusual style and combination of modes. This arrangement is performed on the high strung acoustic guitar.

7. O Holy Night: Adolphe Adam (1803-1856) was a French composer of several stage and ballet productions. He took his melody to his close friend, the French poet Cappeau de Roquemaure who supplied the lyrics. They titled their collaboration "Cantique de Noel." The English words we use today were written by an American clergyman and musical scholar,  John Sullivan Dwight. Adam's composition was initially met with criticism from French church officials who denounced it for its "lack of musical taste and total absence of the spirit of religion." It has gone on to become one of the most popular works in the repertoire of popular and sacred holiday music.

8.  Hark ! The Herald Angels Sing: The lyrics are attributed to Charles Wesley in 1730.  Felix Mendelssohn wrote the music 100 years later as part of a celebration commemorating Gutenberg, the printer. The melody and lyrics were joined together by English musician William Cummings in 1855.

9. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen: Its actual meaning is  God keep you, gentlemen, in merry spirits. The true origin of this carol has never been established, however, it was likely a popular London street song and was  even mentioned in Charles Dickens' A  Christmas Carol.

10. Silent  Night: On the day before Christmas in 1818, Joseph Mohr, a young associate minister, brought a poem he composed to Franz Gruber, the church organist, to be set to music.  Since the organ was broken, the two finished and performed the song that night using a guitar for accompaniment. The organ repair man finally showed up in the spring. While testing out the repaired organ, Gruber performed "Silent Night".  The repairman, after hearing the song, was so impressed he took a copy of the hymn to his town.  From there it was passed on to a traveling musical group and its popularity spread throughout the world. In 1863 it was translated into English and became an American favorite.

I know, I know. I was blown away when I learned that although the tune, "Greensleaves," really is Tudor, the words to the Coventry Carol--"What Child Is This?"--were composed in 1865 by William Dix.

But then, maybe to Chad Orzel everything before 1950 is "very old," and only the fact that the temporal center of my day job is 1800-1900 makes me regard Dix, Mohr, Mendelssohn, and company as nearby.

Posted by DeLong at December 31, 2004 09:17 AM

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» The mother of invention from The Republic of Heaven
Brad DeLong has a pretty interesting post today on the inventedness of Christmas carols--unsurprisingly, most of the more popular carols (yes, even the religious ones) are of quite recent vintage (19th century or later). One of the more fascinatin... [Read More]

Tracked on January 1, 2005 07:00 PM


"But then, maybe to Chad Orzel everything before 1950 is "very old," and only the fact that the temporal center of my day job is 1800-1900 makes me regard Dix, Mohr, Mendelssohn, and company as nearby."

Considering that I've often worked with teen-age kids who don't know what a turntable (record player) is, you could be right.

Geologists and historians often amuse folk with their individual time sense. I once labeled (in print) the Inquisition as "modern"... :-)

Posted by: JohnDL at December 31, 2004 10:02 AM

It's still reasonable to make a distinction between the songs written before 1900 and those written after 1940. Declaring the old ones to be "carols" is probably arbitrary, but I agree with most of the other points in the article, such as the inappropriate arrangements of songs that work so well with untrained singers. If the newer songs are different for any objective reason, it's that many were made famous by specific celebrity performances (e.g. White Christmas). Maybe the real divide here is the pre-recording and post-recording age.

My least favorite Christmas song of all time is "Little Drummer Boy" (which is modern and religious, hmm...). It just makes me wince to hear it (apologies in advance to those who like it).

Another holiday song I find really interesting from the standpoint of the whole secular/religous debate is Sleigh Ride (1948). Everyone recognizes it as a Christmas song, though it goes to heroic efforts to say nothing about Jesus or Santa, while drenching the listeners in all the other seasonal trappings (snow, pumpkin pie, fire, chestnuts). The occasion in the song is supposedly a "birthday party at the home of Farmer Gray" and unless this is a cheesy crypto-religious reference to the birth of baby Jesus, it suggests the song is almost going out of its way to deny it's about Christmas. This suggests to me that the secularization of Christmas was well underway over 50 years ago, and by that standard ought to be considered part of the American tradition rather than some "new" liberal conspiracy.

Posted by: Paul Callahan at December 31, 2004 10:25 AM

My day job *stops* at 1800. (Sometimes at 1400).

When it comes to appreciating older eras, we are usually looking at some much closer simulacrum. Why is Tolkien's fantasy considered "medievalist"? It's awfully hard to relate most of it to what is usually called "the Middle Ages" in any straightforward fashion.

Rather, the Hobbit is a product of the 1930s, and LotR a product of the 1940s and 50s, overlapping with my own lifetime. Tolkien was drenched in medieval literature, but he was a modern man.

I feel that the Middle Ages is a remote continent, inaccessible to us, while Tolkien's Middle Earth is a vast peninsula of it that our ships can indeed reach. It still seems pretty exotic and evocative when we get there, but it's much closer than the real thing.

[So suppose Chaucer had set out to write "The Hobbit." What would he have written instead?]

Posted by: sm at December 31, 2004 10:39 AM

Since when is the Coventry Carol "What Child Is This?"? AFAIK, the Coventry Carol is: "Lullay, Thou little tiny Child, By, by, lully, lullay." (A variant has, "Lully, lullay, Thou....") And the words (as well as the music) date to the 1500s.

[Yep. You're right. I'm wrong. Mindo, bigtime...]

Posted by: Mark Lindeman at December 31, 2004 10:43 AM

But then, maybe to Chad Orzel everything before 1950 is "very old," and only the fact that the temporal center of my day job is 1800-1900 makes me regard Dix, Mohr, Mendelssohn, and company as nearby.

You know the saying "Europe is a place where a hundred miles is a long distance, and America is a place where a hundred years is a long time." I'm very much an American. If it dates from before 1895 (roughly), it's older than anyone I've ever known, and that counts as "very old" to me.

(Actually, the "very old" in that is originally from Tris McCall's piece, which I do highly recommend.)

I would tend to agree with Paul Callahan that the real dividing line is probably the advent of recorded music, so somewhere in the late 1800's (Edison's phonograph was in 1877). And again, all of the songs on your list would qualify.

"Sleigh Ride" and "Jingle Bells" and "Winter Wonderland," and other songs of that ilk are really not so much Christmas music as just winter music. They're associated with Christmas now just because that's the only time of year at which people really listen to that style of song any more. Again, Tris McCall points out several examples of this sort of thing.

Posted by: Chad Orzel at December 31, 2004 10:47 AM

Mark is absolutely right. The Coventry Carol has nothing to do with "What Child is This?" or "Greensleeves".

[You're right. That's a mindo on my part. Although how a mind can confuse "lully, lullay" with "what child is this" is an interesting question indeed...]

It was written in the 16th century as part of the mystery plays (possibly "Pageant of the Shearman and Tailors") in Coventry and is quite possibly the most heartbreaking of all carols.

It tells of a mother's reaction to her child being killed after Herod ordered all the babies born around the time of Jesus to be killed, because Herod feared the stories that Jesus was to be the next King.

Technically, it's not a "Christmas carol" because it refers to events that happened when Jesus was an infant, and is not about his nativity.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day.
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever morn and day,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Posted by: slidge at December 31, 2004 11:04 AM

I think there are at least 3 things going on in Chad's piece, one of which (and it seems like his central point) I largely agree with - most arrangements of traditional carols (whenever they date to) are a bit frou-frou. I guess my response would be that if you think the optimal arrangement of Silent Night is at Midnight Mass, then you have an excellent opportunity to witness a free performance. But I don't think it's realistic to expect Hallmark to record and sell it.

Obviously, there's no accounting for taste, but it's hard for me to accept someone so carelessly tossing aside White Christmas. Yes, it's secular (excellent point by Paul Callahan that this has been going on for decades), but it's also a spectacular piece of songsmithy. To isolate just one bit (perhaps the best), simply look at the last two lines:

May your days be merry and bright,
And may all your Christmases be white.

I can't do any musical notation here, but you all know the tune - think about the high, lovely note on "bright," then the drop to the next line, and then the minor notes for "be white." Like It's a Wonderful Life and Charlie Brown Christmas, the song does an incredible job of conjuring up all the mixed emotions and melancholy of Christmas, and those two lines alone exemplify it. Stunning.

Finally, I'm not sure the recorded music dividing line is what it's cracked up to be in this discussion. I think we may be seeing a coincidence between the popularization of recorded music (later than has been suggested here - more like 1900 or 1920, depending on your metric) and the secularization of Christmas. I don't mean the evil Christ-ectomy that the shouters are pretending to care about, but rather the prominence of Christmas as a cultural event in the US.

As many of you no doubt know, Christmas wasn't a major holiday, religious or secular, in the US until well into the 19th Cent, and had few of its current connotations until the tail end of that century. Thus, the whole Christmas-as-family-gathering concept that is central to so many Christmas songs (to use Chad's formulation) came about right around the time of recorded music. White Christmas wouldn't have meant anything to anyone 50 years earlier, not because it was amore religious culture, but because Christmas just wasn't that big a deal yet.

Posted by: JRoth at December 31, 2004 11:12 AM

There was a major burst of carol composing in the 19th century US, probably associated with the rise of the holiday here and in Britain. And the more likely motivation for "Silent Night" was the Mexican-American war, which was going on at that time and was a source of major tribulation to the Unitarians at the time. This carol coincides with Thoreau's tax protest. (Per the local ministry that decided to include a commentary on its origin at the Christmas service.)

But it did build on strong earlier Christmas traditions from pre-Civil War Britain. The Puritans tried to exterminate the festivities, and did suppress them for a while in the colonies and England. But you still find older songs and elements from the older traditions, e.g. "wasail", mixed in with the newer elements.

Posted by: rjh at December 31, 2004 12:14 PM

I was always under the impression that a lot of our modern Christmas traditions date from two specific literary works: The Night Before Christmas (1823) and A Christmas Carol (1843).

And, of course, the invention of tradition didn't stop in 1901! I heard a radio piece recently about the famous 1914 Christmas truce, and it included a tidbit I hadn't known before: the German soldiers had Christmas trees, and the English soldiers didn't know what they were. They were a German tradition in the early 20th century, but not an English one.

Posted by: Matt Austern at December 31, 2004 12:24 PM

In all of this, I think a lot of people forget that these songs are pretty much drinking songs. There's a lot to be said for getting some warm cider, spiking it, and going around the neighborhood singing all the songs you can remember.

Posted by: Victor Allen at December 31, 2004 12:39 PM

Much of what could be known about vernacular music pre-1890 is lost-- that date being roughly the advent of sound recording.

This produces several falacious assumptions. The oddest one is the assumption that quickly-moving music fads (those santa-based tunes, for instance) are somehow a modern thing. They aren't. Before sound recording, the polka spread across Europe and the new world and became pretty pervasive (from Mexico to Scotland to pretty much all across Europe) in very little time. Are mid-to-late 20th C Christmas tunes really that much worse than, say, Scotish polkas, or Tex-Mex polkas?

Another odd assumption is that the things that existed pre-1890 (and thus weren't quickly documented) somehow are timeless. The origins of blues music is just barely out of reach on record, yet you'll read lots of writers who assume it is somehow very old, or very African. "Folk" music had fads and shifted from generation to generation-- there was no Ur-version of this stuff before "popularization" ruined it. An example other than blues would be the early Country music that folks like the Carter family did, which to modern ears sounds very old, although much of it was late-Victorian parlor music from a generation or slightly more earlier than the era of the singers.

One thing that recording did is set early versions in concrete to some extent. I think we've lost a way tunes got improved and edited. With people hearing songs and remembering them and re-doing them, there'd be bits of improvement from version to version. No one said "I can do this like the record" and learned it that way. So some of the modern Christmas songs didn't get an editing benefit songs from as recent as mid-Victorian would have had.

In any event, the assumption "I know this timeless stuff, and it's better than the recent commercial stuff" involves I suspect assumptions that aren't so.

Finally, there are plenty of very good commercial Christmas songs, from "Please COme Home For Christmas" to "Back Door Santa" but then that's my taste.

Posted by: TomF at December 31, 2004 12:49 PM

Queen Victoria introduced the Christmas Tree into England.

Traditional Apache "Chicken Scratch" music is the polka.

Posted by: sm at December 31, 2004 01:07 PM

"Emmanuel" is very, very old, and very little changed. The words are a close translation of the 8th century Latin hymn "Veni veni Emmanuel". Hum the melody to yourself, and notice how little it has been altered from the original plainchant melody.

This is the Coelecanth of Christmas songs, from an era that pre-dates actual carols (a late Middle Ages form, characterized by a 6/8 meter and not even necessarily religious in nature) by centuries.

Posted by: Dave L at December 31, 2004 01:43 PM

The suggestion that complex arrangements of Christmas carols are inauthentic because farmers couldn't sing like that is nuts. Before there were records people got their music from someone playing the piano and others standing around singing. Singing in parts is a very old tradition. My 84 year old father was taught solfege in church, growing up in a farm village in southern Illinois, and still, in the mid stages of Alzheimer's, can sing harmony and appears to enjoy doing so.

Posted by: cafl at December 31, 2004 01:48 PM

Secularization of Christmas Music is only part of the story at least in some eastern European traditions. For us Christmas does not start until the sighting of the first star on Christmas Eve. It starts with a meatless vigil supper, is followed by midnight Mass and later an exchange of gifts. The following days Carolers visit homes to sing "traditional Carols". The carollers are rewarded by invitation into the house, given food and drink (hot chocalate and cookies) and money (in the past small coins -- maybe a Susan B. Anthony today). The Christmas season and celebrations end on the Feast of Three Kings -- January 6th.

Thus even the time of the Christmas Season has changed for many of us "ethnics" ... to Thanksgiving thru Christmas. Further evidence of secularization? I think so.

Posted by: donmaj at December 31, 2004 02:12 PM

---"Emmanuel" is very, very old, and very little changed.---

The main difference is the meter, which is often ironed out into 4/4 in modern versions instead of changing with the text. The two common changes are adding a beat in "exilio" and one between "Emmanuel" and "nascetur pro te." Contemporary recorded versions sometimes add only the first of these; the group I sing carols with every year always adds both. I like it a lot better with neither, so I recorded it that way. No one has complained yet...

But you're quite right, these minor changes don't amount to much.

Posted by: Tim Walters at December 31, 2004 04:16 PM

It starts with a meatless vigil supper

Except fish. Preferably carp.

Posted by: radek at December 31, 2004 05:44 PM

What cafl said, about more people having practiced singing when no-one had recordings to listen to. There was, it seems to me, an intermediate stage of popularization/form-fixing when sheet music and parlor instruments got reasonably cheap; mid to late 19th c?

Slightly tangentially, this seems like a reasonable place for me to recommend the group Liber UnUsualis; I recently heard their concert of English mostly-Christmas music, mostly Marianist, largely of music found on parchment or vellum that had been used to re-bind other books when it went out of style. (IIRC, MRI or NMR imaging is now good enough to read the ink without undoing the rebinding. Is that cool or what?) The CD of this is Flyleaves.


Posted by: clew at December 31, 2004 05:55 PM

I went to an early music concert where it was claimed that "Deck the Halls" is pre-Christian and over a thousand years old. Didn't seem likely to me, but they were from UC Berkeley, so it had to be true, right?

Actually, I think very little popular Christmas music is post-1950. McCartney's "A Wonderful Christmas Time" seems to get airplay, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone else sing it, amateur or professional. There's Vince Guaraldi's "Christmastime is Here" (Charlie Brown Christmas) and Mel Torme's "A Christmas Song" (Chestnuts roasting...), which are quite good. I would probably pick Guaraldi as the best of the 20th century.

I've learned to appreciate Sleigh Ride, which used to sound too much like shopping music to me.

But generally I agree that the pre-20th century ones are better. They've been through a lot more filtration.

Most of the tin pan alley songwriters were Jewish (to be sure, so was Mendelsohn, but he didn't write the words) and may not have related to the religious aspects of the holiday, instead playing up the nature of the season to make the holiday seem more universal.

Posted by: Martin Bento at December 31, 2004 06:48 PM

"My least favorite Christmas song of all time is 'Little Drummer Boy' "

Those of us of a certain age were fascinated by the utterly bizarre pairing of Bing Crosby and David Bowie in a duet performance of this tune, with some charming new material by Bowie. It's hard to imagine, in this age of White Stripes/Loretta Lynn collaborations, a contemporary equivalent; perhaps Metallica and Celine Dion?

Posted by: Ken C. at January 1, 2005 04:35 PM

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