Christmas & Music, Part 2: The Meaning of Modern Christmas Music

Dec 10, 2014

Welcome back! Last week we started talking about the long history that music and the Christmas season share. This week we’ll be focusing our attention on more modern musical expressions of the season. But first, let’s have a quick recap on what we discussed last week. We began with ancient carols: carols are so old in fact, they actually pre-date Christmas by millennia. Pagans sung carols as they danced around stone monoliths, celebrating the Winter Solstice. From these humble beginnings, the Christmas carol, and other holiday songs, became a big part of the Christian holiday as they were integrated first into religious services. Then came St. Francis of Assisi. He began putting on Nativity Plays throughout Italy, featuring songs about the holy family, sung in the local language. These early carols started a trend that we still continue today, centuries later. There were a few hiccups and roadblocks along the way, specifically the Dark Ages and later Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. But despite oppressive regimes, negative popular opinion, and even disease, Christmas music has endured to become what we enjoy today.

The last few years of the 19th century, running into the early years of the 20th century saw the first recordings of many carols that have enjoyed extreme popularity throughout the ensuing 100+ years. Among the songs recorded at the dawn of the 1900s that we still sing on cold, snowy evenings today were classics like “Silent Night, Hallowed Night” (Haydn Quartet, 1905), more commonly known as “Silent Night, Holy Night” today, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” (Henry Burr, 1907), “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” (Trinity Choir, 1916), “Night before Christmas” (Ernest Hare, 1920), and “Auld Lang Syne” (Navada Van der Veer, 1921). Each of these songs, and many more, have stood the test of time, and are easily recognizable even today, despite subtle changes in lyrics or titles. But there is one song, originally written by James Lord Pierpont, and published in 1857, that can be recognized by most English speaking people within the first few notes: “Jingle Bells.”

Originally published under the title “One Horse Open Sleigh,” “Jingle Bells” was actually written to be sung for American Thanksgiving, not Christmas, but over time, the wintry imagery of its lyrics eventually overtook its intended purpose, and we gained what is arguably the most popular Christmas song of all time. However, even given its immense popularity, there are several more verses than what we are unfamiliar with. The main theme of these verses that have gone somewhat forgotten over the past few decades are of high-speed youthful fun. The second verse speaks of taking a ride with a girl, which, at the time, was the equivalent of taking a girl to a drive in, or “parking” on a lover’s lane. This verse even has a double entendre!

A day or two ago

I thought I’d take a ride

And soon, Miss Fanny Bright

Was seated by my side,

The horse was lean and lank

Misfortune seemed his lot

He got into a drifted bank

And then we got upsot.

Here we see an unchaperoned couple, our for a fun, evening ride in a distant wood or field, with all the opportunities that go along with the situation. But the horse seems to have other plans, as he gets stuck in a snow bank. Ah, but here comes the joke we may not get the punchline of today: upsot is an archaic past tense version of “upset,” meaning “capsized” in this instance, but at this time and place, it was also slang for getting drunk (wink wink, nudge nudge).

Another interesting thing about “Jingle Bells” you may have noticed is the fact that it isn’t religious at all. Yes, it is true that the song was originally written for Thanksgiving, but it could be argued that it was the first true secular Christmas song, a tradition that has continued to this day. Many pop stars today cover old, religious songs during the Christmas season, but the overwhelmingly vast majority of songs produced for the holiday are secular tunes celebrating the feelings associated with the season. As I am sure many Christians would say, the Christmas holiday has become more and more secular as the years have gone by. Regardless of whether you believe this move towards secularism is a good thing or a bad thing, Christmas has become a holiday for all peoples, and its music has followed suit. Nearly every popular musician has recorded some kind of Christmas music over their career; everyone from Paul McCartney, to Gwen Stefani, to U2 have both covered Christmas classics and recorded their own original compositions. Today, instead of singing songs in a long dead language that no one but the clergy can understand, or tell stories about the people the holy family met on their way through the streets of Bethlehem, we sing about a jovial, obese man in a red outfit, who generously gives, not only gifts, but his magic and time. We sing about levitating reindeer, some with bioluminescent sniffers. I personally know many religiously inclined people who believe this move away from the church and the ancient traditions marks a period of social and moral decline. I, however, am more of the opinion that while modern Christmas music may not be explicitly spiritual, or speak of the birth of a messiah, it still fulfils the same promise it always has: bringing us together in spirit and in song.

It could, very easily, be argued that, in their countless eons of existence, Christmas carols have come full circle. They began as songs celebrating the sun and the Winter Solstice, slowly becoming cryptic hymns, sung only during religious services, a way to worship the birth of a saviour, in a language reserved for and only understood by the elite. From there it evolved to become more accessible to the masses; St. Francis initiated the practice of singing Christmas song in the popular language of the area they were performed in. And eventually, at long last, it has come back to a basic celebration of the season. But not celebrating the birth of a messiah, or even the Winter Solstice any longer. No, today’s popular Christmas music celebrates us; it celebrates our generosity, our selflessness, and our love for one another, especially during this time of year. Some say this move away from religion has left us morally bankrupt. I say the modern Christmas music we hear pumped through innumerable retail outlet sound systems is proof of our continued moral integrity, and basic humanity.