The Long, Strange History of Christmas Carols

Christmas carols: Why do we keep singing “Jingle Bells” and “The First Noel”?

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Nov. 30 2011 8:02 AM

Christmas Carols

Why do we keep singing them?

Carol singers.
At face value, the Christmas carol may be the least captivating style of occasional song

Photograph by Digital Vision.

For an image of the world to come, look to the children: Recently Justin Bieber, the Western world’s choirboy igni ferroque, released his first Christmas album, combining traditional carols—“Drummer Boy,” “Silent Night,” and the like, performed in his signature reedy contralto—with some festive canticles not previously loosed upon the Earth. (From one track: “I don’t want to miss out on the holiday/ But I can’t stop staring at your face.”) Bieber has said that his goal in recording this music, which has already hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, was to “work with people who had great experiences with Christmas albums.” This may strike some listeners as a quixotic ambition. Christmas carols are, if anything, the visiting relatives of the musical world: They show up at the same time every year, stick around a little longer than one might prefer, and set the tone of virtually all family entertainment while they are in town. A December without them would be strange and slightly lonely, yet the prospect of their absence tends to be, by one week in, a reason in itself to look forward to the new year.

Why have Christmas carols stuck around so long—and not just boldly, puzzlingly, recording-career-of-Tom Jones long but centuries, epochs, eons? Consider the bizarreness of the product at hand: At face value, the Christmas carol may be the least captivating style of occasional song. While other popular tunes arise from passion or desire, heroism or defeat, the Yuletide songbook is a catalog of modest thrills and postindustrial neuroses. A quick survey turns up portraits of manic stress release (“Jingle Bells”), overwrought hallucination (“Do You Hear What I Hear?”), complex Freudian trauma (“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”), desperate midlife lechery (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”), forced enthusiasm (“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”), and thinly veiled xenophobia (“Dominick the Donkey … the Italian Christmas donkey!”). It was apparently decided long ago that we can overcome these demons by frightening them away with feckless vocalization. Carol-singing, like drinking, accounts for a large part of boisterous group behavior in this country. If a large posse of merrymakers rings your doorbell in the quiet suburban night, there is an equal chance that you should call the cops or offer them a nutmeg-flavored snack.

Consider, too, that Christmas carols have no obvious counterparts among the other holidays. Large group odes are not sung in anticipation of Memorial Day. Any ditties written about Halloween tend, rightly, to collect in the storm drains and the lint filters of our culture. What few songs flourish elsewhere do so in private, forgoing carols’ wide exposure in favor of smaller, more selective audiences. (“Dayeinu,” the Passover song, is thought to be more than 1,000 years old, yet shoppers are unlikely to find it piping over the sound system of Forever 21 anytime soon.) Why? Partly, this unobtrusiveness may be a gesture of self-defense: The Christmas-music empire has in the past been known to undertake bold conquest missions on its own behalf, laying claim to any tune that threatens its hegemony. “Jingle Bells” was composed as a Thanksgiving song but fell, like Carthage to the Romans, when it started to gain traction. Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, which is actually about Easter, came under Yuletide jurisdiction for the same reason. It is only right that other holiday ballads should steer clear of these rolling ballistae, just as it is right for members of the populace to question the carols’ high-stepping motives. Maybe we listen to Christmas carols because we want to. Or, maybe, we are simply not allowed to quaff our nog to any other kind of song.

Advertisement

Given these questions, it is tempting to dismiss carols as a symptom of seasonal hype, of “the commercialization of Christmas,” or of other pestilences of the modern soul. Actually, their excesses are the opposite of modern. Christmas carols have always been the product of hype and invented ritual, nurturing false nostalgia almost from the start. If anything, their legitimacy as tradition has only increased in recent years. Today’s carols are one of our few genuine access points to the history of Western pop music, the centuries of mainstream fare buried beneath our own.

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.

  Slate Plus
Foreigners
Sept. 4 2015 12:16 PM How Can This Possibly Happen? Geoffrey Sant wrote about drivers in China who intentionally kill pedestrians. Ask him anything.