Hope's Corner: It's Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas
"Wherever I go these days, I hear Christmas music. The sound systems in stores and restaurants, and the Sirius XM channels they play, are all festive with Christmas carols and kitschy songs. And I began to wonder how long people have been singing and playing Christmas music," writes Jackie Hope.
As Christmas approaches, we are all getting ears full of Christmas music from every direction. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is spiced up on restaurants’ playlists. “Frosty the Snowman” sifts down from the gas station’s outdoor speakers. There is a “White Christmas” at Bath & Body Works, and at church we get to sing a whole bunch of Advent songs and maybe one Christmas carol per Sunday.
Many places started their Christmas playlists the day after Halloween. That works fine for me. I didn’t mind shopping for half-priced Reese’s Peanut Butter Pumpkins to the tune of “Jingle Bells.” And I kind of enjoyed shopping for my Thanksgiving turkey while humming along to, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”
Have you noticed that some stores use playlists of traditional carols like “Angels We Have Heard on High” or “Good King Wenceslaus,” while others are all a-pop with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” Just for the record, I can sing all the verses of the first two songs, and I cannot even hum the title words of the last two. I have not listened to pop music since the Beatles broke up. I still blame Yoko Ono for that.
And what is the difference between Christmas carols and Christmas songs? The Classic FM website explains that Christmas carols are, “traditional songs that are sung just before Christmas that celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.” Other sources, including Britannica.com, simplify it even more. Christmas carols are sacred music while Christmas songs are secular.
The oldest Christmas carol, according to Billboard.com, dates to the 4th century. St. Hilary of Poitiers composed the Latin “Jesus refulsit omnium,” “Jesus illuminates all,” shortly after the first recorded Christmas celebration in 336. The oldest Christmas carol that we still sing today is “The Friendly Beasts,” which dates to the 12th century. Most of our familiar Christmas carols are from the 18th and 19th centuries.
So what about the first secular Christmas songs? One of the oldest Christmas songs that we still sing is “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” which some sources say dates to 16th century England. All that figgy pudding in the second verse of the song has been around, then, since the time of Henry VIII. Well, old Henry surely does seem like a figgy pudding type of guy.
Most pop music of long-past centuries was not written down, like church music was. Pop tunes were performed by traveling minstrels, who probably could neither read nor write. It was inevitable that much of the ancient secular music, including Christmas music, was lost over time.
For all we know, some traveling minstrel in Lapland was singing “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” back when the Vikings were sailing all over the place. I can just see Leif Erickson singing and pounding out the rhythm to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” as his men rowed to the New World.
Jackie Hope is the longest running Dickinson Press contributor and columnist. "Hope's Corner" is a weekly humorous column centered on a message of hope for residents in southwest North Dakota.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Dickinson Press, nor Forum ownership.