The earliest Christmas songs were written, rather surprisingly early. Around 500 C.E., the famous Archbishop of Milan, Ambrose, wrote some of the earliest Christmas songs. Christmas, etymologically derives from Old English Christes mæsse from the 11th century, coming from the earlier GreekChristos and the Latin mæsse (lit., when combined, ‘the holy mass of Christ’). Ambrose’s work was not concerned with light-hearted Christmas tunes, however. His work consisted of serious metaphysical-religious arguments against Arianism, a competing Christian group in Egypt and southern Europe. These songs were not for the ‘holiday spirit’; they were part of an overarching religious dialogue.
By the 10th c., Christian monasteries in Northern Europe began to formalize some of the earliest Christmas songs into fixed structures, as well as writing new works. Under Bernard of Clairvaux, Christmas songs became sets of rhymed stanzas. This stanza style was popularized by incorporating popular and well-known folk songs and adapting lyrics of Christ’s birth and resurrection, allowing greater common interest. This is what first most closely resembles modern Christmas carols – a combination of the liturgical doctrine and popular interest in music.
Widespread resurgence of popular Christmas music began, however, in the 13th c., across France, Italy and Germany, with the work of Francis of Assisi. Departing from Latin, Christmas music became ‘democratized’ as it was written in vernacular languages that peasants in the main population could understand. Christmas carols also began appearing in English during the 15th c., due to John Awdlay. He was a chaplain in Shropshire who formalized twenty-five carols, most likely sung by groups of carolers (called wassailers). These carolers would go from door-to-door, traditionally done during the ‘harvest tide’ and during Christmas. You might recognize The Holly and the Ivy, one of Awdlay’s twenty-five carols.
While carols up until the 17th century were uncontroversial, and accepted in both religious and popular folk-traditions, they were banned in Britain under the Commonwealth of England, with Cromwell urging the prohibition. They claimed that Christmas carols were pagan remnants of older religions, and sinful means of expression. This was a common refutation against primarily Catholic practices and songs. The English Government actually even abolished Christmas in 1645. What a sad day for the holidays, no? Luckily, the prohibition ended with the reinstitution of the Stuarts to the throne in 1660.
The rest, as they say, is history. With Christmas reinstituted as a popular festive event, it became saturated with music. Protestant ministers and musicians composed many of the popular songs that we know today. This reached its peak in the 19th century, withChristmas Carols Ancient and Modern in 1833, by William B. Sandys. You may know, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, The First Noel, I Saw Three Ships, and Hark the Herald Angels Sing from this selection.
Christmas music continued to gain popularity through the 19th and 20th centuries. With the widespread ease of printing and distributing music due to advancements in the industrial revolution, Christmas carols, hymns and liturgies became excessively popular. The rise of early rock n’ roll in the 1950s took an unsurprising, but revolutionary turn in Christmas music. Taking common religious and secular ideas and songs, these musicians converted Christmas tunes into the new popular medium for music. This foot in the door served many new approaches to Christmas music. From mainstream rock, such as the Beatles, mainstream pop, such as Brenda Lee, and more contemporary music, from Manheim Steamroller to the Killers – we hear Christmas music in almost any genre of popular music we can turn to.
Would it ever have been apparent that religious debate in early 6th c. would turn into songs like ‘Don’t Shoot Me Santa’? Who would have ever thought that the hand of Francis of Assisi would indirectly lend to songs such as ‘Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer’? That being said, it is worthwhile looking at music as expressive of a given culture at a given time. At the end of the day, it’s a great thing to see how Christmas music has represented so many voices in so many contexts, with so many backgrounds, spreading so many messages. Even if it may become annoying to hear Slade again in the supermarket, and even though Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree may be getting old, it’s refreshing to recognize the deep-running history and intricate conversations that these songs engage in. Christmas isn’t just what you hear on the radio, it’s the history of a people.