Christmas carols evoke those long gone “days of yore” making the coldest of hearts warm a little during the winter holiday season, but did you know they are by and large an invention of the Victorian Era?
Although no-one knows for certain when singing carols took off, singing and dancing were important parts of the pagan traditions in pre-Christian Europe. As the Church in Rome spread from the third to the fifteenth centuries, they grafted elements of the pagan festivals onto the liturgical calendar, hence the proximity of December 25th as Christmas and the winter solstice. The songs from this period are lost to history as are many of the details of the celebrations.
Historians do know carols were sung. How? Because when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans came to power in mid-Seventeenth century England, they banned them. Cromwell set out to destroy all the trappings of the Roman Catholic Church and anything associated the church. Since Christmas appeared on the liturgical calendar, the celebration of Christmas largely disappeared from the public record. People may have caroled in the comfort of their home, but going door to door was a punishable crime. The Puritans brought their non-celebration traditions with them to America, so you were unlikely to encounter a band of roving carolers in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Caroling takes off in the nineteenth century, both in the United States and Europe. Myriad forces brought sweeping changes in what historians call “The Age of ISMs.” In the wake of industrialism, the American and French Revolutions , nationalism and romanticism, governments and other institutions recognized the power of public ceremony to bring citizens together, increase patriotic good will, and reduce civil unrest. Queen Victoria encouraged artists of the day to develop and promote a cozy feel-good holiday. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, embodied the new Christmas ideal. Simple plainsong chants using words evoking the nostalgia ideal were laid over traditional melodies – think “Christmas is coming”.
The surge in civil pride meant many towns, cities and churches formed orchestras and choirs. People needed songs to sing. James Pierpont wrote Jingle Bells as a simple song for children to sing during a Thanksgiving program. The audience demand for a repeat performance at the Christmas concert ensured its holiday superstardom. The beautiful paring of word and melody of Silent Night almost didn’t happen. A broken church organ and the threat of a music-free Christmas Mass in Austria led Pastor Josef Mohr to ask a composer friend to develop a simple melody to accompany a poem he wrote.
With Thomas Edison’s 1877 invention of the phonograph, people could listen to songs performed and recorded thousands of miles away. Recordings “fixed” the sound. Listeners developed an expectation of how a song should sound and did their best to reproduce it.
By the time recording technology and radio entered most homes the mid-twentieth century, the Christmas nostalgia idea held tremendous cultural sway. Magazines and advertising showed people how Christmas should look; radio and phonographs created the soundtrack. Demand for additional music and a need to lift wartime spirits brought a new wave of “traditional” songs. The much beloved White Christmas, imbued with irony by composer Irving Berlin, managed to both fun at Christmas nostalgia, even as it became part of the carol canon.
As pop-culture has grown more fragmented in the twenty-first century, I doubt we will see a new “traditional” carol gain enough traction to become a classic, but I have a suggestion.
“Winter Weather” is a personal favorite from the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Check out the cover – it looks like an LP but was initially released as a CD. When you play this tune, notice how it sounds like it could have been written a hundred years ago even though it dates way back to the late 1990s. Hope this link works for you. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQ_2UTLDlgo&list=PL436A7D26C6CADE6B
What are some of your favorite carols, new or old?
Note: I have drawn from multiple sources for this work, including, but not limited to: Kittler-Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Muir-Ritual in Early Modern Europe, Hobsbawm & Ranger eds. The Invention of Tradition, Slate.com, WhyChristmas.com
To learn more about my caroling past, visit me at http://www.crimsonromance.com/featured/do-you-carol/