Christmas music is a category unto itself entirely, but how did it get started? Was music always important in the celebration of Christmas? I did some investigating, and here’s what I found.
Monks laid the foundation in the early middle ages.
While it’s entirely possible that Christians during the first several centuries of Christianity used music in their Christmas celebrations, we don’t have records of much because Western musical notation didn’t begin developing until the 9th century in monasteries. However, we do have record of one Christmas hymn dating back to 129 A.D.!
As Western musical notation developed alongside plainchant, Christmas texts and chants were composed by monks. These include the text of O Magnum Mysterium, which has a plainchant associated with it, and Hodie Christus Natus Est.
But when did carols become a thing?
Originally, carols weren’t just associated with Christmas. It was a popular medieval song form that Franciscan friars especially took advantage of. In Dulci Jubilo comes from this tradition. During the Renaissance, Christmas carols took on a life of their own, with carols such as I Saw Three Ships, Boar’s Head Carol, and Coventry Carol emerging.
Did the Protestant Reformation impact Christmas carols?
The Protestant Reformers were split on whether Christmas – or any holidays at all – should be celebrated. The Puritans in particular were not a fan of celebrating anything, and they tried to ban singing for a hot second in England. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work out in their favor.
However, not all Protestants were anti-Christmas, or anti-music for that matter. We only have to look at the wealth of music from the Lutheran tradition for proof of that! Speaking of which, J.S. Bach wrote a beautiful Christmas Oratorio, as well as a lovely setting of In Dulci Jubilo for organ.
Many of our current carols come from the 19th century!
If you were to give me the opportunity to celebrate Christmas in any time period, the OG Nativity would clearly be my first pick, but after that I would pick the 19th century. This century was probably the peak of Christmas as a holiday, and for proof of it, look no further than the wealth of Christmas carols that come out of this era. Classics such as God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, Hark the Herald Angels Sing (which was written by Felix Mendelssohn, by the way), and Silent Night were written during this time.
Carols began to focus less on Jesus as the culture drifted away from Christianity.
Art affects life, and life affects art. As Western culture became less focused around Christianity, so did the Christmas carols. Instead of primarily being about Jesus’s birth, Christmas music written in the late 19th century to today focuses more about being with loved ones, decorating for Christmas, and enjoying the season. Some examples include Jingle Bells, White Christmas, or Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. However, it’s worth saying that carols centered around Christ haven’t gone out of style. Instead, our current lineup of popular Christmas music is made up of an equal mix of both!
There’s a lot more that could be written about the history of Christmas music, but I promised a short history and not a novel, so I’ll end here. For further reading, check out this article from the BBC on the history of Christmas music!
May you have a blessed Christmas season!
God bless, Cecilia