Historical insights on classic holiday songs that will be performed by the Roaring Fork Youth Orchestra in our upcoming Music FROM the Library concert.
When December arrives with its chill in the air and snow on the ground, we all have a craving for joyous seasonal music celebrating holidays of the month. Music adds a special feeling of magic, whether it’s a celebration inspired by Christmas, Hanukkah, Feast Day of Our Lady Guadalupe, or the Lunar New Year Lighting Festival.
December celebration music in our country includes a variety of genres, instrumental compositions, carols, hymns, and songs with lyrics ranging from the nativity of Christ, to gift giving and merrymaking, to cultural figures such as Santa Claus. This music is performed in concert halls, churches, shopping malls, and private gatherings. It has become an integral staple of December holidays in many cultures around the world. Being a nation of immigrants, our traditions of celebration and the accompanying music represent many societies and countries, with music dating from 4th century Rome through the 21st century. Changes in lyrics and musical style of celebration music often reflect responses to historical events of the society.
As a December holiday celebration, Basalt Regional Library has established the tradition of hosting an annual sing-along concert of joyous holiday songs performed by the Roaring Fork Youth Orchestra. This event always brings tears to my eyes as I observe these beautiful young people appearing at the door, dressed in their holiday finest, ready to accompany us in singing celebratory songs from the many December holiday traditions observed in our community. This year’s pre-recorded concert, which will be broadcast on Grass Roots TV on December 17th at 5:30pm, includes carols, secular songs, Hanukkah familiar songs, plus more. To enhance your enjoyment of this concert, let’s explore a bit deeper some of the compositions you will hear performed. Click on the bolded song titles throughout this blog post for our recommended recordings of these songs.
There’s no better place to start than with the merry sounds of “Jingle Bells." This familiar song was written in 1857 by James Lord Pierpont, church music director and son of the noted Boston reformer, Rev. John Pierpont. It was probably written in Savannah, Georgia, where James had moved after his unsuccessful California Gold Rush adventure. It was composed for Thanksgiving Sunday school services at his church. The lyrics reflect Pierpont’s remembrances of sleigh rides and races in Maine. It was dedicated to a Dr. John Ordway, composer and organizer of a troupe of white men performing in black face, the “Ordway Aeolians,” and appears in their playbill of 1857. As a bit of trivia, “Jingle Bells” was heard from space being performed by the Gemini 6 crew in 1965 with Wally Schirra on harmonica and Tom Stafford on bells!
“Up on the Housetop” was written in 1864 by Benjamin Hanby, whose father was a minister involved in the Underground Railroad. It was the first Yuletide song to focus on Santa Claus. Gene Autry’s 1953 recording put the song soaring to the top of popularity that year.
The Anglo-Saxon carol has been a part of the American Christmas tradition for years. All of us enjoy singing carols, a musical form involving verses with refrains. This form was inspired by Anglo-Saxon round dances with repetitive choruses, probably originating with the celebration of winter solstice. Two carols included in this concert are "In the Bleak Midwinter" and “Good King Wenceslas."
“In the Bleak Midwinter" is a carol based on an English poem written by Christina Rossetti in 1872. It appeared in the English Hymnal of 1906 set to music by Gustav Holst. The melody written by Holst sends the imagination soaring by his use of “word painting,” where musical notes reflect the text or lyrics.
“Good King Wenceslas” tells the story of a Bohemian king, accompanied by his page, going on a cold winter journey to give alms to the poor on the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26). The lyrics were written by John Mason Neale in collaboration with music editor Thomas Helmore in 1853 and set to the melody of a 13th century spring carol "Tempus adest floridum."
During the Great Depression years in the 1930s, the writing of holiday music detached from religion experienced an enormous boom including songs such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
The event of World War II sparked a nationwide nostalgic longing for better times and home sweet home. Secular songs written included “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and many more. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” changed Christmas music forever with its themes of home and nostalgia. Bing Crosby sang his first public performance on his NBC radio show, Kraft Music Hall, on Christmas 1941. Bing is recorded as saying, “the hardest performance of this song was the USO 1944 show in France when I had to sing to 100,000 men and women in the audience…GI’s with tears in their eyes…and I could not break down myself.”
The Jewish eight day festival Hanukkah (feast of lights) commemorates the dedication of the Temple in 165 BC by the Maccabees after its destruction by the Syrians. Probably the most well known songs associated with Hanukkah are the joyous children’s songs, “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” and “Dreidel.” These children’s songs are sung by people of many faiths.
The upbeat song “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” was written by Mordkle Riversman, published in 1912, with celebratory lyrics that include dancing the Horah, playing with dreidels, eating latkes and lighting the candles of the menorah.
“Dreidel” or “I Had a Little Dreidel” was written by Samuel Goldfarb with lyrics by Samuel Grossman. The song’s lyrics describe making a dreidel and the child’s delight when playing with it. The simple melody allows all of us, young or old, to freely sing with glee.
Although our concert does not include the 13th century hymn, “Rock of Ages” nor Handel’s “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” from his oratorio Judas Maccabaeus (1746), both compositions are sung in celebration of Hanukkah.
In closing, let me say, “Feliz Navidad.” The chorus of this classic Christmas song by Puerto Rican singer/songwriter Jose Feliciano translates, “Merry Christmas and a prosperous year and happiness”, or “I wanna wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart.”
This Christmas song, played and recorded around the world, is a true bridge to different cultures, a function music has served for centuries.
Tune in to Grass Roots TV, channel 12, on Thursday, December 17th at 5:30pm to watch Music for the Joyous Season, the next Music FROM the Library performance. This concert will also be available to view on YouTube and Facebook after the Thursday broadcast.