Jump to content
ElmiraTelegram.com
Sign in to follow this  
  • entries
    10
  • comments
    7
  • views
    172

Holiday Music In Colonial America

Linda Roorda

167 views

If there’s anything that exemplifies the Christmas season, it’s the music. The familiar faith-based carols and popular melodies embody the meaning of a beloved holiday as well as add to our joyous spirits. But Christmas music back in the early days of America wasn’t what we think of today. Obviously, there were no radios for listening to popular tunes, and there were no records, cassettes, CDs or MP3s to buy.

And, if anyone was dreaming of a white Christmas, it certainly wasn’t with a popular tune! It was simply the beauty of a night made more silent by the pristine-white ground cover, and the time it took to harness the horse and ready the sleigh for a trip thru the woods and over the river to Grandma’s welcoming arms.

It’s hard to believe now, but centuries ago the singing of Christmas carols was officially banned from the medieval church! Undeterred, hearty souls who loved to sing songs of their faith went door to door, singing to their friends. That is, until Oliver Cromwell put a ban on this activity in 17th century England. Even the early American Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, and William Bradford ordered those slackers back to work who dared to celebrate – after all, Christmas was not a holiday… yet, anyway! It wasn’t until 1870 that we Americans officially recognized Christmas as a “Federal” holiday. Prior to that, festivities began to be popular about 1840; previously, celebrations were considered “unchristian.”

5a22c12fbeafe_ScreenShot2017-12-02at10_04_45AM.png.aa4f847b46a45c9c8206b540ff1e9920.png

 

In all fairness to the Puritans, they believed every day was to be lived for God.  Their common adage held that “they for whom all days are holy can have no holiday.”  This belief was based on not finding Scriptural support for any holy day other than the Sabbath, though they definitely found other reasons to enjoy hearty celebrations.

Biblically, early Christians were encouraged to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord…” (Ephesians 5:19 NIV) So, it’s really no wonder songs of joy have been in the hearts of those who celebrated Christmas over the centuries, including our ancestors.

In the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps the oldest Christmas song was written by St. Hilary of Poitiers in the early 4th century. The Latin “Jesus refulsit omnium” or “Jesus illuminates all” is believed to have been written by St. Hilary in 336 AD for the first Christmas celebration. Aurelius Prudentius, a Christian poet also of the Roman Catholic Church, wrote “Corde natus ex Parentis” (i.e. Of the Father’s Love Begotten”), a 4th century hymn, not a Christmas carol per se`.

A few years later in 354 AD, the Roman Catholic Church drew up a list of bishops, with a note for 336 AD: “25 Dec.: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae.” (i.e. December 25, Christ born in Bethlehem, Judea.) Thus, December 25, 336 is believed to be the “first recorded celebration of Christmas” (i.e. Christ’s mass) even though no one knows the actual date of Jesus’ birth.

5a22bce294575_ScreenShot2017-12-02at9_46_41AM.png.6a797ec0d7a9725d10e8b449a78d8467.png

 

In the early 13th century, Italy’s St. Francis of Assisi used live “Nativity Plays” with singing of carols to revive a Christmas spirit among his parishioners. As Christianity spread, the Roman Catholic Church began singing “Angel’s Hymns” at the Christmas mass, and other churches followed the example across Europe. Over time, new carols were written with Scripture-based themes, and traveling minstrels shared the music on their travels.

Though once banned, the old carols regained popularity as common folk sang privately or in special bands for Christmas Eve services. Eventually, Christmas carols were welcomed in the church worship service, and continue to thrive today not only in our many church hymn books, but have also been made popular via modern media. Most carols we sing today are only a few centuries old, written in the 18th and 19th centuries, while many newer carols and popular songs were written in the latter 19th through the 20th centuries, with even newer and more contemporary Christmas music written in the mid-20th century through this current 21st century.

With carols being songs expressing our joy, and knowing their origins, they are especially meaningful to us as we sing our favorites during the Advent and joyous Christmas season. Only one verse is shared of each song except the last two; you will easily find the balance in your hymnbook or in an online search.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – a long-time favorite, it’s a song of the medieval era, perhaps written in the 9th century by a monk or nun. John Mason Neale, an Anglican priest of the early 19th century in the Madeira Islands near Africa, translated this Latin poem from an ancient book of poetry and hymns he had discovered. Neale is believed to have used musical accompaniment from a 15th century funeral hymn of French Franciscan nuns, as per a manuscript at the National Library of Paris. The tune we still sing today is based on the ancient “plainsong” rhythmic style. There are eight or nine original verses, but the typical church hymnal uses five.

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – though the composer of both this carol and the tune are unknown, it has been sung in churches as far back as the 16th century. First published in 1827 or 1833 (source difference), it was traditionally sung in the streets of London by watchmen and among revelers in taverns. In fact, Charles Dickens referenced it in “A Christmas Carol.” When Ebenezer Scrooge heard this song being joyfully sung in the street, something he could not abide, he threatened to hit the singer with a ruler! It has been popularized by numerous 20th century recordings. Originally, there were eight verses.

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.
Refrain:
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy.

Joy to the World – this favorite carol by Isaac Watts was published in 1719 in his book, “The Psalms of David.” Based on his paraphrase of Psalm 98, it does not reference the traditional Christmas story found in Luke 2. Though not being written for Christmas per se`, it celebrates Christ’s coming again as all earth rejoices – completing the reason for His humble birth in Bethlehem. There are four verses to this very joyful and beloved carol.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – one of over 6000 hymns written by Britain’s prolific hymnist, Charles Wesley, this carol was penned in 1739 as a poem of ten verses. An original line, “Glory to the newborn King” was later changed by Wesley’s student, George Whitfield, to “Glory to the King of kings.” That change led to a rift between the two men with Whitfield eliminating some of the verses, yet this carol is considered one of the richest theological assets to the church hymnal. Its melody was written by Felix Mendelssohn, a familiar name as musician and composer.

Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise, Join the triumph of the skies;
With the angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.”

Angels We Have Heard on High – this popular nativity carol originated in 18th century France among the people who truly love to sing their “Chants de Noel” or Christmas carols. The title is taken directly from Scripture, Luke 2:14, using Latin for the chorus: “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (i.e. Glory to God in the highest). The carol entirely references Luke 2:6-20, and was first published in North America for the Diocese of Quebec in the “Nouveau recueil de cantiques” (i.e. New Hymnal) of 1819. It was first published in the Methodist hymnal in 1935. There were four original verses.

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.
Refrain: Gloria in excelsis Deo! Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht! or Silent Night, Holy Night! – the simple yet elegant words to this beloved carol were written as a poem in 1816 by Joseph Mohr, Catholic priest at Mariapfarr. Two years later, Mohr had become priest for St. Nicholas’ Church at Oberndorf in the beautiful Austrian Alps. When the organ broke just before Christmas, Mohr took his poem to the organist, Franz Gruber, asking him to write an easy tune for singing with guitar. Gruber then composed the organ accompaniment several years later. But, if it were not for the organ repairman taking a copy of the song with him and sharing it with others, one of our favorite carols might have remained a seldom heard Austrian folksong. In 1859 or 1863, Mohr’s original poem of six verses was translated from German into the familiar English version by an Episcopal priest, John Freeman Young – verses 1, 6, 2 being what we sing today. Read more history at Stille Nacht Gesellschaft. 

This carol was sung during a WW I truce between American and German troops. Men climbed out of battlefield trenches to celebrate their beloved holiday together, while the war carried on as usual the next day. The Austrian von Trapp family (of The Sound of Music fame) included this carol in their singing tours, helping to popularize it in the U.S. after they had escaped the Nazi regime during WW II.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

5a22c06a36f19_ScreenShot2017-12-02at9_51_21AM.png.782baaf907fbb49385d5838e9c5441ef.png

 

Cantique de Noel, or O Holy Night – my absolute favorite, this poem was written in 1847 by Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, priest in a small French town, for mass that Christmas Eve. His friend, Adolphe Charles Adams, was asked by Cappeau to write the musical score. Unfortunately, learning that Cappeau was a socialist and Adams was a Jew, the church leaders banned the song, proclaiming it was not appropriate for worship services. Fortunately for us, the parishioners loved the song so much they sang it anyway! John Sullivan Dwight, an abolitionist, was deeply moved by the phrase, “chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His Name all oppression shall cease,” and published the song in his American magazine during the Civil War.

Across the sea, O Holy Night was sung by a French soldier on Christmas Eve in 1871 during war between France and Germany. Climbing out of the trenches and walking onto the battlefield alone, the brave young man began singing, “Minuit, Chretiens, c’est l’heure solennelle ou L’Homme Dieu descendit jusqu’a nous,” the first line in French. Then, a German soldier climbed out of his foxhole to sing another carol, “Vom Himmel noch, da komm’ ich her. Ich bring’ euch gute neue Mar, Der guten Mar bring’ ich so viel, Davon ich sing’n und sagen will.” “From heaven to earth I come” is a carol written in 1534 by the reformationist, Martin Luther. Feeling the bon homme of Christmas, fighting ceased for 24 hours, with the French church subsequently welcoming this beautiful and popular carol in their worship services.

O holy night!
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
Refrain:
Fall on your knees
Oh hear the angel voices
Oh night divine
Oh night when Christ was born
Oh night divine
Oh night divine

What Child is This? – this poem was written by William C. Dix in 1865 (1837-1898), an Anglican layman born in England, who lived and worked in Glasgow, Scotland. It is believed the hymn was written to fit the tune of Greensleeves, a traditional English melody which dates to the 16th century. Shakespeare actually referred to this particular tune in his play, “Merry Wives of Windsor.” Though Dix references the traditional Nativity scene of Luke 2:8-16, the original poem entitled, “The Manger Throne,” also refers to Christ’s later suffering on the cross.

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
(The following section of this first verse is used as chorus for each subsequent stanza):
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day – In 1861, tragedy struck America’s beloved poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Song of Hiawatha.” In July, the flame from a candle ignited his wife’s dress. She ran to her husband’s study where he tried to put out the flames with a small rug and then by wrapping his arms around her. She died the next morning, but his face was so injured he could not attend her funeral. After their eldest son went off to war, Lt. Charles Longfellow was nearly paralyzed by a bullet passing between his shoulder blades in November 1863. Traveling to Charley’s side, a still grieving widowed father sat down Christmas Day 1863 and wrote this poem from personal anguish, yet with a heart of hope as the church bells rang out… for God is not dead! Peace on earth, good will to men.

Longfellow’s original poem:


I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet, The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along, The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound, The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong, And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

 – traditionally thought to have been written by Martin Luther in the 16th century, it first appeared in a Lutheran Church hymn book in 1885. It is now believed the song was not written by Luther, but was a song published anonymously in the Lutheran children’s songbook and given the title of Luther’s Cradle Song. The third verse was written by Dr. John T. McFarland, a Sunday School superintendent.

Long considered a child’s hymn, and perhaps the best well known, it captures our hearts with its simplicity. Christmas is not about the gold, glitter and gifts. It’s the story about God humbly coming to earth as a newborn baby for our redemption. His earthly parents found no room of comfort in the inn for the birth of their first child. Instead, baby Jesus was born in a stable, surrounded by cattle, donkeys, and likely cats, mice and other animals, and was laid to rest upon a humble bed of hay in a manger, a feed trough. (Luke 2:1-7)

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there.

May each of you and your families be blessed with a most wonderful Merry Christmas!



2 Comments


Recommended Comments

A really good book to read would be "The Autobiography Of Santa Claus" by Jeff Guinn. It's very entertaining as well as steeped in historical facts.

  • Like 1

Share this comment


Link to comment

I've gotta get that from the library - sounds like a great read! and many thanks for posting the appropriate photos!

Share this comment


Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
×