Evolution of Christmas music: From traditional to modern

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It’s safe to say that Christmas would not be  joyful without music, but how did solemn hymns and Christmas carols develop into commercialised records and modern pop hits? From the earliest Christmas music until the 17th Century, influence of the Victorian period, and the Great Depression onwards, we will explore some major historical events that transformed the Christmas music scene forever.


Earliest Christmas Music until the 1700s

It is believed that the earliest Christmas music originated during the Middle Ages. In fact, history goes that the Bishop of Rome declared “in the Holy Night of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour, all shall solemnly sing the Angels Hymn” and so, Angels Hymn, the first ever Christian hymn of the Christian church was recorded in 129AD. During the 4th Century, most Christmas hymns were in Latin and slow and solemn, including Jesus Refulsit Omnium, but the people wanted to dance and rejoice through their music, which is how the word carol came to light, literally meaning “song to dance in a circle”. This introduced the beginning of Christmas carols, such as the origin of O Come, O Come Emmanuel during the 12th Century, and The First Noel from the 13th Century.

The 16th Century brought us three other traditional carols, which you might know today; God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, O Christmas Tree, and The Twelve Days of Christmas  The less common Boar’s Head Carol from 1521 is also acknowledged as one of the oldest printed carols, according to Oxford Dictionaries. This carol was a tradition at Queen’s College, Oxford where it was heard annually at Christmas Lunch. During the 18th Century, England continued to reign as a main producer of Christmas carols including todays popular choices of O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, and Holly and the Ivy.


Influence of the Victorian Period

In 1840, Prince Albert married Queen Victoria, which meant that many Christmas German customs were intertwined with English Christmas traditions such as: the evergreen tree, exchanging gifts and Christmas cards. This cultural change not only reinvented Christmas, but also increased the popularity of Christmas, as reflected through new Christmas music. Between 1838-1868 multiple Christmas carols were recorded, many of which are commonly sung today. Examples include O Holy Night (1847-55), Jingle Bells (1850-59), We Three Kings of Orient Are (1857) and O Little Town of Bethlehem (1868).

One of the most famous carols, Silent Night, was also invented between 1818-1863 with words supposedly written by Father Joseph Mohr in 1816, who had to travel through the snow to bless the newly born baby of a poor parishioner. In 1818, these words were arranged to music by Franz Xaver Gruber and by 1863 the English translation was published. Many other carols were also translated into English, including the second and third stanzas of O Christmas Tree in 1824 and Adeste Fideles in 1841. In 1871, Sir John Stanier published the English book collection of Christmas Carols New and Old which is believed to include new arrangements of The First Noel (13th Century), God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (16th Century), and Here We Come A-Caroling (17th Century).

The Great Depression Onwards

The trend of new Christmas music withered during the late 1800s- early 1900s, but this changed during The Great Depression. And so, Christmas music moved away from a religious context to reflect new-found interests in entertainment, movie stars, and even politics. Due to the invention of accessible electronic media during the 20th Century, such as radio, TV, music records, and cinemas, this meant that many Christmas songs from this decade onwards were linked to and distributed through these new forms of media.

In 1938 the children’s book Rudolph Red-Nosed Reindeer was written by Bob May, and most likely inspired Gene Autry’s song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1949. Later, in 1962, an animated TV special of Rudolph was aired,  helping maintain the songs popularity. In fact, many Christmas songs that premiered in movie shows were made popular by famous actors/singers, such as Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1944) from Meet Me in St. Louis starring Julie Garland, and Baby It’s Cold Outside (1949) from Neptune’s Daughter. This also includes the biggest-selling Christmas song of all time, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (1940) which made its debut in Holiday Inn (1942) and was most famously sung by Bing Crosby.

Political events of the world were also beginning to influence Christmas songs. For example, I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1943) was recorded by Bing Crosby during the height of WW2, to represent the common feeling of soldiers longing to return home to their loved ones. Later, in 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono wrote Happy Xmas (War is Over) to mark protesting of the Vietnam War, and in 1984 the charity song Do They Know its Christmas was first released to raise funds for famine relief. On the opposite end, novelty comical Christmas songs have also been a big thing from I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (1952) to last year’s Christmas chart number 1 hit, I Love Sausage Rolls (a spoof of Joan Jett’s 1982, I Love Rock’n’Roll).


Who knows what the number one Christmas hit will be this year?! (It’ll probably be All I Want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey let’s be honest!).

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