Musical Celebrations of Christmas

Dec 19, 2018

It’s the final stretch! The last week before Christmas!

With all the hustle and bustle leading up to this point, have you had time to take in some of the more musical traditions of the season?

Music permeates the Christmas season, reaching into nearly every aspect of the holiday. But while there’s always cheerful music playing in the background while you shop at the last minute, that’s not really a tradition (I hope!).

So this week we’re going to take a look at some traditional and contemporary musical traditions of the season. Which is your favourite?


There’s no real, definitive history behind the tradition on Christmas caroling. Where the practice started, and who wrote the original carols, is unclear and up for debate. What is clear is that caroling is a form of oral tradition that has been past down through the generations.

Though still popular throughout North America and Europe today, carols commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ might have been first written in Latin in the 4th or 5th centuries, but they didn’t become connected to Christmas until hundreds of years later. In fact, Saint Francis of Assisi, the Roman Catholic saint of animals and the environment, is usually credited with bringing upbeat, joyful carols to Christmas services, and the practice quickly spread through Europe.

Unfortunately, when Oliver Cromwell came to power in 1649, he banned Christmas celebrations in England until 1660 (he thought Christmas should be a serious holiday celebrated seriously), forcing caroling out of popularity until the 19th century, when the joyful, expressive hymns were well-received once again.


And speaking of caroling, today, following ancient tradition, carolers often sing door to door. Some say this is because they were originally not allowed to perform in churches, so they stayed on the porch. Another theory says this didn’t develop until the 16th century, when Anglo-Saxon peasants adapted these customs when they went “wassailing” – requesting nourishment from superiors in exchange for singing good tidings.

Wassail was a thick, hot spiced beverage that would keep carolers and well-wishers warm – not unlike a nice cup of eggnog or hot apple cider today. As wassailing grew and evolved, with children usually going door to door, it became more and more associated with Christmas and caroling.

Handel’s Messiah

Messiah is an oratorio (similar to an opera, only without the costumes or sets) written by George Frideric Handel in 1741, and hearkens back to 16th century Rome when the art from was first created. When Handel first started writing this kind of work a colleague gave him the idea for a new oratorio on the theme of the life of Christ. He was inspired and composed Messiah in a mere two weeks.

Eventually Handel moved to London, bringing his work with him, where Messiah became a theatre performance. Though it was an amazing piece of work, the church felt that the theatre was an inappropriate place for the story of Christ.  Scandal erupted, there were debates and articles published in the newspapers, and the oratorio remained unsuccessful for years.

That all changed, however, when Handel decided to use Messiah as one of the centerpieces for a charity concert. It was a rousing success, and became so popular that, in order to cram more people in, they asked the women to refrain from wearing their hoop skirts. The overall event was also a huge success, raised lots of money for a hospital, and changing everyone’s mind about Handel’s Messiah.

By the time the Victorian Era came around, Messiah had morphed into a Christmas performance. At the time, Charles Dickens was writing about poverty and charity, and Messiah quickly fell into being considered the same sort of art as A Christmas Carol. And so, it was moved to Christmas, and so it has stayed. Today, it is performed during the Christmas season all over the world.

The Nutcracker

Originally performed in 1892, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker was first performed in the U.S., in its entirety, on Christmas Eve, 1944, by the San Francisco Ballet company. They had no idea that what they were doing would become as much a part of the holiday tradition as leaving cookies and milk for Santa. But seventy years later, they’re still performing it every year. But why, of all ballets, has The Nutcracker come to rule the Christmas season? It’s all about the children.

For countless kids The Nutcracker is their first exposure to both ballet and classical music. When parents want to expose their kids to high culture The Nutcracker is the perfect wholesome, visually stimulating choice to start with. And what’s more, many children’s first experience on stage is with The Nutcracker as well, often in school plays or the like.

Tchaikovsky is easily one of the most brilliant composers to have ever been born (even if he is a little underrated at times), and the familiarity if his work has allowed choreographers to get creative with it; The Nutcracker has been adapted for the LGTBQ-community, hip-hop, Jewish audiences, and more. It’s no wonder this tradition has stuck around.

Holiday Display

I want to end this week’s fun with a tradition that’s a little more contemporary: creating a Christmas light display set to music!

Depending on your age, (like me) you might remember a time when Christmas light displays were pretty simple – dull even. You’d throw up a few strings of lights – the ones with the big, fat bulbs – and call it a night. Well, some folks have decided to take that boring old tradition and kick it up a few notches!

Take YouTube user Tom BetGeorge. His massive, musically-synced light displays have become yearly internet sensations, and a full on assault on the senses, in the best possible way! A music teacher/director by day, Tom builds everything from scratch and says he originally got the idea a few years ago when he was working on a dance number for students, and he found a computer program that would run the lights.

Back in 2014, he used 70,000 lights set to Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Sarajevo (Carol of the Bells),” and a tradition was born!