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The origins of Christmas carols

The custom of celebrating the New Year with festivities, along with song and dance to mark the occasion, is older than history. However, early in the Christian Era, Church authorities, in their attempts to stamp out such pagan traditions, made every effort to discourage the transposition of popular songs into the context of the new faith. Legend has it that Saint Francis of Assisi (1181–1226) was the one who managed to lift the ban. In 1223, toward the end of his life, he presided over Christmas celebrations in the village of Grecchio. Searching for a concrete way to demonstrate the concept of the Divine Incarnation to the flock, Saint Francis had the idea of recreating the stable where the Evangelists said Jesus came into the world. On Christmas Eve he borrowed a cow, a donkey, and a manger in which he placed a statue of the baby Jesus, and he set them up in a cave near the village. He had previously obtained papal permission to celebrate midnight mass before this scene rather than in the consecrated setting of the church. His monastic brethren composed songs for the occasion which more closely resembled the popular songs and dances of the pagan tradition than religious hymns. Thus were born the traditions of both the nativity scene and the Christmas carol, paving the way for the Church’s acceptance of popular modes of expression.

Traditional carols and modern Christmas treasures

This recording includes two categories of Christmas “classics.” There are of course the more traditional, and mostly anonymous, carols such as Les anges dans nos campagnes (Angels We Have Heard on High), Petit papa Noël and Sainte nuit (Silent Night); but it also includes some of the most beautiful Christmas melodies of that golden age of the 1930s and 40s, when crooners gave us the likes of White Christmas, The Christmas Song, and even I’ll Be Home for Christmas. While the singers such as Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole who immortalized these songs were household names, the songs’ composers were not; these old hands in the music business got credit on the sheet music but otherwise worked in the shadows of the big stars.

Each song has its own unique story, but the origins of the traditional carols are often hard to trace. For example, the melody of The First Nowell—which, despite the anglicized spelling of noël, the French word for Christmas, is as British as plum pudding—dates back to the 16th century, probably from the Cornwall region. However, the first published edition to include words is far more recent (1833), and it is possible that William Sandys, publisher of the collection entitled Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, also wrote the original English lyrics.

Because they are much more recent and better documented, there are a number of amusing anecdotes associated with the songs of the crooners’ era. For instance, the song White Christmas was composed in 1942 by Irving Berlin for the Hollywood musical Holiday Inn, staring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire; the film was remade in 1954 as the movie White Christmas, again starring Crosby, but this time with Danny Kaye. Legend has it that the first time Berlin played the song for Crosby, the crooner quipped, “I don’t think you have to worry about this one.” As one American critic pointed out, it was probably the understatement of the century, since White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby turned out to be the all-time best-selling single before the Beatles’ era, rising to the top of the charts every Christmas until 1962. Today, few Christmas recordings omit this song.

Popularized by Nat King Cole, The Christmas Song was, strangely enough, composed during a severe mid-summer heat wave that smothered the United States in 1946. Trying to forget the stifling heat, lyricist Robert Wells and his friend Mel Tormé (dubbed the “The Velvet Fog” because of the mellow timbre of his voice) composed this song, which evokes Christmas pleasures such as “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” and roasting turkeys.

In 1943, the year after the success of White Christmas, Bing Crosby had another hit song with I’ll Be Home for Christmas, written by the well-known 1940s songwriting duo of Kim Gannon (lyrics) and Walter Kent (music). At the time, America was at the height of its involvement in World War II, so the sentiment expressed by the song struck a chord with both the men who found themselves overseas and those who anxiously awaited their return. Within several weeks of its release, sales of the recording surpassed one million copies.

Finally, another American hit of World War II, by another successful songwriting duo— lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne—was Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Sung by the crooner Vaughn Monroe, the song came out in early 1945, after Christmas, so it was not originally a Christmas song. However it was, perhaps, the first song in praise of snow storms. Why? As the song says, they make a perfect excuse for lovers to stay inside, beside the fire, where it’s warm and cozy…

© Guy Marchand, 2004
Translation: Peter Christensen

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