Why do we keep singing them?
Photograph by Digital Vision.
An air of false exuberance has been the hallmark of Christmas songs as long as Christmas songs have been around. Although there are accounts of birth-of-Christ hymns being sung in second-century Rome—by order of Christian authorities, not public preference—it was not until the fourth century, when Christmas was formalized as a feast and fixed to Dec. 25, that a songbook started to take form. Some of the first contributions were existing, non-Christian carols adapted to the new celebration. The early church did not appreciate these pagan-Christian conversions and answered with hymns of its own. (“Veni, redemptor gentium,” or “Savior of the Nations, Come,” attributed to the fourth-century Milanese bishop St. Ambrose, may be the earliest still-extant Christmas carol.) Evidence suggests that people sort of hated these songs. The church-approved carols were in Latin and, in some cases, amounted to arcane doctrinal quibbles set to music. Christmas music swiftly became the yacht rock of the Dark Ages, proliferating in earnest even as it lost all public reputation.
The man who freed the Christmas carol from this prison of poor taste was St. Francis of Assisi, one of the church’s gentlest but most crucial reformers. In the 13th century, Francis tried to break the Christmas celebration from its tedious husk, mostly by making the birth of Christ into a live theatrical event. He organized nativity pageants featuring real hay, real animals, and, for the first time, real music: Deviating from tradition, he allowed for narrative songs in audiences’ native languages, turning Christmas music into an opportunity for mainstream creativity. Drinking songs were given Yuletide lyrics (greatly to the church’s horror) and disseminated by traveling entertainers. Christmas began to take on a life of its own, beyond the exigencies of the sacred feast.
Those halcyon days didn’t last. Martin Luther was a strong backer of the new, folkier Christmas music, which dovetailed with his new and folky thinking about Christianity, but certain of his disciples were not. Christmas in the English-speaking world died a second death when the Puritan movement—which did not believe in religious song, let alone general merriment—banned Christmas celebrations altogether in 1647 by Parliamentary law, with the support of Oliver Cromwell. Their suspicion of the holiday managed to cross the Atlantic as well. For a time, persons in the Massachusetts Bay Colony found to be observing Christmas (“consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth,” to quote the complaints of the Rev. Increase Mather) faced a fine.
It took the English-speaking world nearly 200 years to rediscover Christmas fully, and it happened largely through the songs. In 1822, the MP and amateur historian Davies Gilbert published a compilation of “ancient Christmas carols”; 11 years later, a second, still more influential volume by another compiler, William Sandys, publicized several tunes still sung today, including “The First Nowell, the Angel Did Say” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Then came the royal intervention. In 1840, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German who made it one of his projects to import Continental-style Christmas as “an echo of … the old time, of what we thought and felt”—in essence, to invent an English Christmas tradition where little had previously existed. Among the subjects to embrace this change was the young writer Charles Dickens, who, in 1843, published A Christmas Carol as a blow against the grim, Puritan-inflected holiday. In some sense, the most crucial character in the book is neither Scrooge nor Tiny Tim but the Ghost of Christmas Past—a revisionist tour guide whose voice allowed Dickens to describe a history of festive, music-infused British Christmases as the norm.
The Christmas of the 20th century—festive, secular, obsessed with tradition—is an extension of this Victorian holiday, just as modern carols are an outgrowth of its 19th-century tunes. No Christmas song may embody the holiday’s self-perpetuating narratives better than “White Christmas,” a secular anthem that the Jewish Irving Berlin, who did not much care for the holiday, wrote early in 1940 in a spirit of some irony. Slate’s Jody Rosen, who published the definitive biography of the song, has described how this wry hymn became an earnest Christmas standard and “the biggest pop tune of all time” thanks in part to growing cultural nostalgia and the homesickness of wartime soldiers. This sort of approach grew into the norm, and a new generation of carols rose by appealing more to the Yuletide mood than to the holiday itself.
Today, in fact, an important feature of Christmas carols is that they are only nominally about Christmas. Listeners faced with the full canon might distinguish between sacred songs (those that make some mention of Christ’s birth) and secular ones (Santa Claus, snowmen, mistletoe, “cheer,” and all manner of wassailing), but this is like insisting on a basic difference between hot cross buns and Danishes. Both are iced and sweet and good for a light meal with coffee. “Christmas spirit” sounds like a vague and euphemistic term, but it conveys the loose relationship these tunes have to the details of the holiday at hand.
Instead, they offer us a story of their own development. The 21st-century Christmas-carol listener has an anchor line cast into Western history: In no other context do most of us find ourselves using wishing for sables and light-blue ’54 convertibles, deploying 19th-century regionalisms like “upsot,” and gathering to perform plainsong chants in premodern modes. Carols carry us back to a time not merely before Shakespeare but before Beowulf—and then to many of the eras in between. When people speak about the “Christmas spirit,” they mean a form of reassurance virtually expunged from modern life: the comfort of continuity, the pleasure of return, the knowledge that not everything we have will one day disappear. Christmas carols are our mainstream window to the past and, as a consequence, the closest thing we have to a guarantee of our own era’s future.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.