It's Beginning to Sound A Lot Like Christmas

Chris Smith gives a brief history of our favorite carols and songs of the season.


When the holiday season rolls around, the first thing to make an appearance is almost always Christmas music. From the time the clock hits midnight on Thanksgiving until New Year's Eve, Christmas music can be heard in stores, restaurants and on the radio. While the popularity of Christmas music is evident in our culture today, its origins had more humble beginnings.

Prior to the celebration of Christmas as we know it today, there were, and still are, mid-winter seasonal celebrations, professor of musicology and Director of the Vernacular Music Center Chris Smith explains. These European celebrations predate Catholicism and are associated with Roman Saturnalia, Celtic Beltane and so on.

"There seems to be a very deep need on the part of human communities, in the depths of winter, to celebrate warmth, light, hospitality, and the promise of the spring returning," Smith said.

Christmas dates back to medieval Catholicism and it wasn't until the early Middle Ages that December 25 was believed to be the birth of Christ. At this time, Christmas was not the most significant holiday on the church calendar. Other denominations, such as Scots and English Presbyterians, also viewed Christmas as a pagan holiday that underplayed New Year's.

However, despite its small role, Christmas gained the creation of several common carols that continue to be sung to this day. Primary examples of these carols include "Good King Wenceslas," "The Holly and the Ivy" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

"Mostly, they come from the English Anglican tradition and hymn book," Smith said. "The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was instrumental in assembling this collection."

Most modern Christmas carols came into existence in the 19th and 20th century, with many being written for Broadway shows or Hollywood musicals. Essentially, the popularity of these carols or songs rests in being viewed as most current or as traditional as putting up the Christmas tree.

Additionally, the memories and emotions invoked by Christmas music is what keeps them in circulation year after year. While the season itself carries the moral of charity, hospitality and hope, it's also the warm feeling of nostalgia that makes all of its facets, including music, dear to our society.

"I think sounds, like smells, carry very powerful associations in individuals' memories," Smith said. "If there's an aroma—cranberry sauce cooking or hardwood fires—which we associate with very specific and joyful memories of the past, then when we encounter that aroma, it brings those joyful memories and feelings rushing back. It's the same way with sounds—especially music."

The Vernacular Music Center along with the J.T. and Margaret Talkington College of Visual Arts, the Caprock Celtic Association and the Roots Music Institute, will be presenting traditional sounds of the season at the 17th annual Caprock Celtic Christmas. This year's theme is "A Desert Miracle" and will be held on Dec. 16 at 7 pm at the Maedgen Theater. You can learn more about the event and purchase tickets here.