Like all art, Christmas carols shape our moods and influence how we experience life.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that Christmas is the only holiday that has its own complete roster of music--of songs that accompany it each year like the Christmas decorations themselves that we pull down out of the attic: songs that are in turn beautiful, thoughtful, comedic, clichéd, delightful, tiresome, and inspiring. Why is this?
Why does Christmas have a set of songs that goes with it? Well, one of the roots of this curiosity has to be its religious component. For many people Christmas is a religious holiday and music has been part of religious ceremonies for a very, very long time.
But not always. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum points out that while early Puritans actually eliminated the celebration of Christmas, after 1762 every single Congregationalist hymnal published in New England included at least one Christmas hymn, although at first these were text only. For the first half of the century, none of the religious music books that were published—what were referred to then as “tune books”—contained any mention of Christmas. The 1760s, however, brought us closer to what we think of as Christmas songs—that is, words and melodies that were specifically connected—as no less than nine of them were published that celebrated the Nativity. In the following decade, the one that brings us the American Revolution, composers in New England began writing their own Christmas music, independent from all the earlier ones imported from the old country.
Interestingly enough, there was, long before this, a tradition at Christmas that was a little like trick-or-treat at Halloween, and involved groups of people going around, imposing themselves upon the well-to-do, and singing popular songs in exchange for food and drink, usually beer. So in a sense there was “caroling” before there were Christmas songs. The new Nativity songs were just grafted onto this tradition.
What does all this say about our relationship to art? Well, for one, it’s an example of a power that we regularly overlook in art—its ability to affect our attitudes and our moods. Christmas songs help put us in the Christmas mood because art is powerful, whether it’s the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus or George Strait singing When it’s Christmastime in Texas.
From Handel to Count Basie, Lawrence Welk to Willie Nelson, artists of all kinds have written and/or recorded music that we associate with Christmas. Today the cynical side of us says “Oh they’re just doing it to make a buck,” and yes Christmas albums do make a buck or two, but they also contribute to the relationship between art and our ability to celebrate the holiday amid our relentlessly busy lives.