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Celebrating Christmas in Song
Report to Moderator Old 06-08-2002 10:03 PM
MMC Editor
Category: Christmas Music
Views: 46,766
Replies: 0
By Kathryn Hern

Rosy-cheeked carolers, warming the night air with their joyful voices, are a beloved symbol of the Christmas spirit. Christmas carols have been an important part of the holiday season since they first became popular in 16th century England. A combination of celebratory lyrics and popular folk song melodies, carols were the music of the common people and an expression of defiance against the somber music played in church at the time.

The first carols centered on dancing, something upon which the church frowned. In fact, the carol "Ding! Dong! Merrily on High" is credited to Thoinot Arbeau, an anagram for the French cleric Jehan Tabourot, who published a treatise on dancing in 1588. The tune comes from the "Branle de l'official," a spirited, flirtatious dance in which men lifted women into the air.

"The Twelve Days of Christmas" similarly has roots steeped in frivolity. The song is derived from a traditional English forfeits game in which each person had to recite a list of objects named by the previous player and then add one more of his own. Over time, many of the lyrics have been misinterpreted, and therefore altered. The "pear tree", for instance, likely found its way into the carol from the French word for partridge perdrix. The "cally birds" (not calling birds, as most people sing today) are blackbirds, and "gold rings" is likely a corruption of goldspinks ("goldfinches" in Scottish dialect.)

The Puritan rise to power in 1647 was a dark period in the history of carol singing. The Puritans officially abolished Christmas and all festivities relating to it, which could have spelled the death of the Christmas carol. For the next 150 years, virtually no new carols were published in England. But there were those who would not be silenced, continuing to secretly teach the carols to their children throughout the generations.

The Victorian era revitalized the caroling tradition in England. In 1822, shortly after Queen Victoria was born, collections of the old abolished songs were published. It was not long before clergy all over England were teaching the carols to their enthusiastic congregations.

Many of the traditional English carols began as poetry and later developed into song. "Good King Wenceclas," written by J.M. Neale, depicts the life of the Czech patron saint Vaclav the Good, who reigned in Bohemia from 922 929. "Wenceclas" is the German form of "Vaclav." The carol is not based on any known incident in the saint's life, but rather illustrates him as a model of pious charity. The "Feast of Stephen" referred to in the song is what we know as "Boxing Day," which was the traditional day to give to the poor.

"O Little Town of Bethlehem" was written by Phillip Brooks and set to music by Henry Walford Davies. Brooks was an Episcopalian priest who often wrote hymns for the children in his Sunday school. He was inspired to write this poem after a visit on Christmas Eve 1865 to a field just outside of Bethlehem, where the annunciation of the shepherds is said to have taken place.

Some of our more contemporary Christmas songs have sprouted from less inspirational seeds, but nonetheless continue to delight us year after year. Mel Torme wrote "The Christmas Song" during a summer heat wave in 1944. On a visit to his friend Bob Wells' house, Torme saw a spiral pad on the piano with four lines jotted down: "Chestnuts roasting…Jack Frost nipping…Yuletide carols…Folks dressed up like Eskimos." Wells wasn't planning on writing any song lyrics he was simply trying to cool off by thinking cool thoughts. But in only forty minutes Torme had turned those thoughts into a Christmas classic.

"Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer" was born out of a department store's need for an advertising gimmick. In 1939, copywriter Robert L. May was asked to create a Christmas story coloring book to give away to Montgomery Ward shoppers. May, who was shy and often rejected as a child, based the story on his own childhood feelings of isolation. At first the department store rejected the idea of Rudolph having a bright red nose an image associated with drunkards - but upon seeing the illustrations by Denver Gillen, they approved the Rudolph story. The popularity of the little reindeer character soon flourished, and in 1948 a nine-minute cartoon based on the coloring book was shown in theatres. The story eventually developed into the song we know today through the talents of May's brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks. Gene Autry recorded the song in 1949, selling two million copies that year. Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, indeed, went down in history.
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