When Thomas Edison was ready to test the first phonograph-recorder back in 1877, he recited “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” Considering all the Christmas music that’s been recorded in the years since, it would have been more appropriate if he had sung “Jingle Bells.”
Given that the commercial life for Christmas music is the brief four-week period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it’s remarkable how much holiday-themed music has been recorded over the years. Each year contemporary artists add to the great body of Christmas pop that’s already on the market. And each year it seems at least one new Christmas song becomes a radio favorite.
Christmas music can be divided up into two categories: religious songs or hymns that celebrate or reference the birth of Jesus Christ, and secular songs that focus on Santa Claus, reindeer, the winter season, or other nonreligious aspects of the Holiday.
The earliest examples of Christmas music are centuries-old hymns that were used as part of church liturgies. Many of the traditional religious carols used today were not written in a single occurrence, but rather evolved over time. For example, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is an English translation of the Latin hymn “Adeste Fideles,” which originated back in the 13th century. It wasn’t until 1751 that composer John Francis Wade published a Latin version of the hymn that is the basis for the one generally used today. It took another hundred years for English priest Frederick Oakeley to circulate the first English translation.
The enduring carols “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World” originated in the 1700s. In the 1800s, popular Christmas carols like “The First Nowell” (AKA “The First Noel”), “Deck the Hall,” “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “O Holy Night,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High” were written.
One of the oldest enduring secular carols is “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” a song that originated in the West Country of England in the sixteenth-century. It grew out of the English tradition in which carolers would sing in front of the homes of wealthy people in the community on Christmas Eve in the hope of being rewarded with treats. In the traditional version of the song, “figgy pudding” is the requested “treat.” Some modern versions change “figgy pudding” to more appetizing options, including “lucky cookies,” “Christmas cookies,” and “milk and cookies.”
“Jingle Bells,” originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh” was written in the mid-1800s, followed shortly thereafter by “Up on the Housetop” – the first secular song dealing with Santa Claus. Songwriter Benjamin Hanby based his song on the description of Santa Claus in Clement Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” Some historians believe Hanby may have also written “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” although the authorship of that song remains unclear.
CHRISTMAS THROUGH THE DECADES:
The first three decades of the 20th century were relatively quiet in producing notable Christmas music. In 1903, the operetta Babes in Toyland included the song “Toyland.” In 1917 A. Emmett Adams and Douglas Furber wrote “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” Ironically, although both are thought of as Christmas songs, neither have any lyrical relation to Christmas.
The “roaring ’20s” hardly made a peep in terms of Christmas music. The one notable Christmas song from that decade is “Ding Dong Merrily On High” and it only counts for partial credit. In 1924, George R. Woodward wrote new lyrics to a melody written by Thoinot Arbeau in 1588. Woodward loved old English poetry, and used archaic language (“let steeple bells be swungen”) and a Latin chorus (“Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis”) that makes the song seem even older than it is.
Things picked up just a bit in the 1930’s. The ever-popular “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” was written in 1934. The live version recorded by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 1975 is no doubt playing on some radio station as you read this. It’s worth noting that Springsteen’s arrangement of the song (which stretches the first syllable of “Santa” in the chorus, rather than the word “town” at the end of the line) is the same as the one first used by the Crystals on the classic 1963 album, A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. Both versions are still used, but the Phil Spector arrangement is favored by pop, rock, and R&B artists.
Coming tomorrow: The second segment of this feature looks at Christmas music written from the 1930s through the 1950s – a time many consider the “Golden Era” of Christmas music.