Holiday Music Around the World

Dec 16, 2015

blog - Holiday Music Around the World

Well, it’s finally happened. Your 52 weeks of Christmas shopping have dwindled to less than two! If you were smart and planned ahead, you’ve been done with your shopping for weeks now. If you’re anything like some of my immediate family, you haven’t even started yet. With just over a week until the big day, if you’re a member of the former group, you might be enjoying the season’s music on your own accord, and if you’re one of the stressed members of the latter group, you may not have a choice in your musical selection as a captive audience while you shop. Either way, this week we hope to give you a somewhat better appreciation for the seasonal music that is seems so may people seem to either love or hate, by taking a short tour around the globe, exploring the musical holiday traditions from cultures around the world. We’ll begin this world tour with our own neighbours to the south in Mexico, down through Chile, swing across the Pacific to Japan, through India, Israel, Europe, and back home to Canada.


With such a strong Christian base, as well as several cultures’ influences, Christmas is a particularly unique time in Mexico. The season runs from December 9 to January 6, with one final event on February 2. Due to the strong religious and cultural similarities with the United States, there is a lot of similarities in the kinds of seasonal holiday music played in both countries, as well as here in Canada. Christmas music is very popular in Mexico, both contemporary and traditional. We would probably recognize a great many of the more popular contemporary tunes, since all your old favourites have been translated to Spanish with much success. And just like in the US and Canada, popular artists are more than happy to create their own holiday classics. But what really makes Mexico’s traditional holiday music a little different are the villancico. Villancicos were originally a type of popular song using an informal poetic form, in 15th century Spain, but over time, and through religious and other cultural influences, they have become most associated with the Christian holidays, especially the Christmas season.


Many of the things that Mexican Christmases have in common with our own traditions, we also share with Chile. However, many things about Chilean Christmases are different as well. Just like with Mexico, a strong Christian base population puts a strong importance on the religious significance of the day, putting Jesus Christ front and center. As such, church is a focal point for daily activities during the season, and religious hymns and music are very popular. One of the things that is a little different, however, is the season in which this all happens. Chile is south of the equator, which means December falls during their summer, which means long beach-filled days, short pleasant nights. While this fact doesn’t directly effect the music of a Chilean Christmas, certain themes and songs may be missing from their popular repertoire. Like anything involving snow, for example.


Across the Pacific we find a bit of a different approach to holiday music in Japan. While there aren’t many Christians (about 1% of Japan’s population), Christmas is a hugely popular holiday. Because Christmas is more of an “imported” holiday with so few who celebrate the religious feast, Japanese Christmas is much more of a commercial event than in Mexico or Chile. Even so, the Japanese people have adopted many western traditions related to Christmas: Christmas parties, gift giving, lights, the tree, and, of course, the music. Over the years there have been countless Japanese and English covers of Christmas carols, western artist’s original holiday songs, and a surprising amount of original content, much of which is fairly reminiscent of Western holiday music in both style and theme. Some of the most popular Japanese Christmas songs have been complied here, give some a listen.


Of course, not everyone celebrates Christmas. While not really analogous to Christmas in any real sense, there is an ancient Hindu festival that takes place during roughly the same time of year: Diwali. Diwali (or sometimes Deepavali) is an important festival for Hindus, celebrating the honour of the goddess Lakshmi. Celebrated between mid-October and mid-November, “the festival of lights” is a five day celebration with music and dancing. Along with Lakshmi, devotees make offerings to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom, and learning, revealing the respect the culture has towards both art and knowledge, and the importance of music.


Of course, the other holiday that happens this time of year that most people are familiar with is Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Dedication. Music has always been an important part of the Jewish religion, and it takes many forms in Hannukkah celebrations. One of the more traditional examples of this is each night, following the lighting of the candles of the menorah, Hannukkah blessing are sung. Of course, there are a few more secular Hannukah songs as well. “Oh Hanukkah,” or “Oy Chanukah” as it’s known in Yiddish is one of the most recognizable English Hanukkah songs. It’s lyrics are about dancing the horah, playing dreidel, and singing happy songs. And speaking of the dreidel, “I Have a Little Dreidel” is another example of a popular, well known Hanukka songs.


As we come back to a Europe, and a predominately Christian population, it’s back to Christmas music. European Christmas music is built upon centuries of traditional folk, religious, and even pagan music. With so many distinct cultures so close to one another, interaction is unavoidable, leaving the entire continent a mixing pop of holiday music, set to simmer to hundreds of years. The result is a blending of secular and religious tones, music from the 17th century and earlier remaining popular today, and a huge library of music in different languages and genres.


Here in Canada we find ourselves right between the religious tradition of the holiday and the secular celebration of the season, without the same connection to historical music as our European counterparts. Music still plays a hugely important role in the season, whether you are religious or not. Ask anyone who works in retail.

No matter the culture, or even the holiday, music plays an important role in any celebration. So whether you love or hate Christmas music, you have to admit, the season wouldn’t be the same without it.