Carol or Song? The Modern Christmas Music Catalog Has Many Options to Enjoy

December 2, 2007, 2:47 AM · by Rhiannon Nachbaur of Award-Winning Fiddleheads Violin Shop


I returned home from a long, windy drive on wet fall roads to visit relatives to a purring cat and warm home; both happy to greet me at the door. Moments later the power flickered off; the cat ran outside in a panic and the heat from my furnace skulked away without a sound.

Pitch-blackness was broken slightly by the countless strands of Christmas lights jeering at me from neighbours’ rooftops.

“We still have power!”

The electrons did not flow into a few homes on my block for several hours. The entire time I fumbled my way around in near darkness while others in my immediate community showed off their electrical prowess via seasonal decorations placed up nearly two months early.

What nerve, I thought verbally to my husband, of these people to have their lights up so darn early. We still have Halloween decorations in the yard and these people think it’s Christmas. He not so delicately pointed out to me that I shouldn’t talk; that I had been teaching my violin students Christmas music for a week.

Touché.

In my and all other music teachers’ defense, it is necessary to start learning Christmas music early in order to have the music well rehearsed in time for performances around the 25th of December. Because, really, who wants to hear an hour of ill-practiced and nastily out-of-tune Christmas carols. Or is it Christmas Songs?

**

Christmas music lives a double life in our society. There are two definite categories: songs and carols. Usually songs that are traditional and carry a religious, sacred theme relevant to the holiday are considered carols.

Some examples of carols are the time-honoured favourites from England and Europe brought to North America ages ago such as “Silent Night” and “O Christmas Tree” (Germany), "Angels We Have Heard on High" and “Angels from the Realms of Glory” (France), and “Joy to the World” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” (England).

Many carols originated as Hymns sung in church services, such as “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” which is actually an advent hymn. Flip through the Christmas section of a standard church hymnal and you may find not only Christmas Hymns, but also many classic carols.

Christmas carolers who venture out into the cold night air to spend a little Christmas cheer tend to sing the carols. The common repertoire features, in addition to the tunes already mentioned above, “Away in a Manger,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “Bring a Torch,” “Coventry Carol,” “Huron Carol,” “The First Noel” and countless others.

More recently and mostly introduced in popular media such as film and album releases are Christmas songs which refer directly to the holiday, but are not of a religious nature and cannot be considered carols due to their "secular," or non-religious, nature. This is the defining characteristic of a Christmas “song” rather than a carol: secular, non-sacred.

Many Christmas-related songs found an eager audience with the advent of radio and television in the 1940’s-1960’s with jazzy pop tunes like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” The tradition continues even today as recording artists vie for the top spot for most popular new Christmas song of the year.

A frequent topic in many new Christmas songs is the theme of Santa Claus, the modern day Saint Nicholas meets corny Coca-Cola mascot. Here’s how we came to know the snappy tunes of “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and, shudder, “Santa Baby.”

Now we get into a subset of the Christmas songs catalog: songs which we associate with Christmas, but which never mention the event itself. What? A Christmas song without mentioning Christmas? Take a listen to “Jingle Bells,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Sleigh Ride” and “Let it Snow” and you will realize these tunes never once mention the sacred holiday. These are really just “winter songs,” yet we still consider them of the Christmas genre.

Then we have the cheesiest and silliest of Christmas music: the novelty song. Titles such as “The Chipmunk Song,” “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” and any number of goofy parodies of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Classy gems which will stand the tests of time, I am sure.

There is a split in our culture between what constitutes the best music for the season. Ask a 5-year-old to sing a Christmas song and they will chirp out a popular tune, like “Jingle Bells,” over sacred carol. Then much of the older generation and religious population prefer carols as they are not only sacred in meaning but do not “cheapen” the holiday with silly irrelevance to the true meaning of Christmas.

I see the point. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” holds very little spiritual meaning and provides absolutely no respects to the birth of Christ, but it gets a lot of airplay and makes a lot of money.

That’s what it’s about. Making money. $$$ Halloween has hardly faded and already we find ourselves wandering aimlessly through the local shopping center with Christmas music wafting into our unsuspecting ears or hearing distant sleigh bells on a television commercial for clumping kitty litter. Big business want us to get into the “spirit of spending” and the music is a proven trigger for our gullible minds.

This isn’t to say I don’t love Christmas music. I enjoy the carols and songs as much as anyone, if not more since I have the pleasure of playing them as a musician. But I enjoy Christmas music in moderation.

We are inundated with Christmas music for two full months in our cars, homes, workplaces and even while on hold on the phone. There are even Christmas ringtones and greeting cards that carol to us when we open them. I’m holding out for a toothbrush that sings carols, as performed by some former American Idol, in our inner ears as we clean our chompers.

The media knows the Christmas music works in brining in the cash, but they also understand the need to keep everyone happy. Hence many radio stations, television networks and other media carefully craft their programming to feature music from the two main genres of sacred and secular.

Many more clever programmers also save some of the non-Christmas “winter” songs for the week after December 25 to keep the spending spirit alive and well. This also wards off the complaints of playing Christmas music past season.Sometimes music which is associated New Year's Day and Hanukkah will also be in the airwaves to keep things fresh.

**

As my violin students rehearse music for the pending season I feel cheery and thankful. Cheery for the jolly melodies swimming in my ears and thankful that there is so much to choose from to keep from going crazy on “Jingle Bells” alone.
Also thankful that the power has stayed on so I could finish my monthly music column!

(Thank you BC Hydro Crews! You are heroes of the modern age!)


SHAMELESS PLUG: Rhiannon Nachbaur operates eco-friendly and award-winning Fiddleheads Violin Studio online at http://www.fiddleheads.cawww.Fiddleheads.ca. Here's the shameless Christmas Plug: Violins, bows, Christmas music books and much more can be delivered before December 25 by shopping online at the website.

Replies

December 2, 2007 at 01:01 PM · I think "Grandma got run over by a reindeer" might have spritual value in a couple of different ways. Really. Extremes have their role in the position of the center. A frivolous song in the context of a religious holiday plays a small role, maybe a large role, in why we don't live in a stifling theocracy. That gives it value. In contrast to that, I think many things we usually think of as civilizing are less civilizing than we imagine.

It's supposed to be a funny song, probably was in some way the first time you heard it. The music business in the U.S., commercial music, has its origin in strange comedy; the minstrel show. That was perhaps the beginning of commercial music in the entire world. I think it was, but I'm not sure.

Ah. Merry Christmas:)

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