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The Origin of Christmas Music

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Ronald Lankford at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach.

While it may seem that Christmas music has been with us forever, it is actually quite a recent development.

Ronald Lankford of Virginia spoke about this fascinating cultural topic at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach on December 1 as part of the grand celebration of the start of the Christmas season. More about that can be read in my next article about the event, to be published tomorrow.

Lankford, who spent the past three years researching this topic for his newly-published book, said there were two main obstacles to the celebration of Christmas in the 19th century. Remarkably, the first one was religion.

“Many churches did not celebrate Christmas at all. Services were held in Catholic, Lutheran and Episcopalian churches, but not in the others.”

Instead Christmas was marked in the streets in a cross “between Halloween and New Years’. This folk celebration of Christmas, the second obstacle,  was little more than excuse for young men to create awful music and dress in masks as African-Americans or women. “

There was a real backlash to the rowdy behavior, said Lankford. “The middle class didn’t like it at all. It was so obnoxious it even drove Quaker women to take snuff!”

Christmas in America did not get firmly established until after the Civil War. “Christmas slowly crept into Sunday school curricula,” and by the time those children became older they perpetuated the celebration. This was helped along by certain songs which we now regard as the bedrock of Christmas music: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Christmas Bells and We Three Kings, for example.

Jingle Bells was written by James Pierpont in 1857, and both Georgia and Massachusetts lay claim to it. “There is a debate on where he wrote it. Historical societies in both places claim it,” Lankford noted.

America’s great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Christmas Bells in 1863 during a time of war. It’s lyrics were quite inflammatory, and two sections were removed before it became the more innocuous song we love now.

“We’ve become so incredibly used to the lyrics that the words lose their power.” Lankford reminded the audience at Whitehall that “there was a terrible price to pay for the Civil War,” a war in which Longfellow’s son was shot in the back.

The lovely carol O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by the Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks in 1868. Like Edmund Sears, a Unitarian pastor who wrote It Came Upon a Midnight Clear in 1849, Brooks wrote a religious magazine.

“We need to remember these people,” said Lankford,” for shaping the experience of Christmas we have today.”

Lankford’s book touches only lightly on these formative years. Instead he concentrates on the 20th century evolution of Christmas through songs and movies by the likes of Bing Crosby (White Christmas) and Pretty Paper, a song by Willie Nelson recorded first by Roy Orbison in 1963.

The author identifies the golden age of Christmas music to lie between 1932 and 1963. He says many of these “were quite short, leading singers to repeat verses and choruses.” A notable exception is Baby, It’s Cold Outside, which “has more words than Winter Wonderland and Let It Snow combined.”

Because the lyrics form a dialog the song was often sung as a duet. Lankford has traced “five versions that charted in 1949; four were duets and one, a country music parody, was sung by Homer and Jethro with June Carter.”

I never got to see Bing Crosby, but I mentioned these in particular since I have seen performances by June Carter, Roy Orbison and Willie Nelson. And of course that brings us to the present day which cwe an only look back with nostalgia.

Even though, as Lankford says, “the Christmas song had lost its clout as a cultural unifier during the 1960s and 70s” because of its attachment to the family, it still fills the airwaves every December. Whether it still carries a message or not is a matter for each person to ponder.

During a lecture at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on Dec. 10, Brett Karlin, Artistic Director of the Master Chorale of South Florida, also spoke about the origins of some famous Christmas music. One fascinating historical record he mentioned is that O Holy Night was the second piece of music ever broadcast on AM radio.  The carol was composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847. In 1906 Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden made the first music broadcast on AM radio, and after playing a Handel aria he played O Holy Night.

Sleigh Rides, Jingle Bells and Silent Nights (250 pages) is $21.95 and is printed by the University Press of Florida.

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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