For people who celebrate Christmas, the holiday season doesn’t feel complete without festive music playing in the background. Many a time, it’s in the form of carollers singing hymns that commemorate the arrival of Jesus Christ.
Even as a non-Christian, I find Christmas carols enjoyable, at least as a sign that the holidays are upon us. But did you know that songs that liven up the festive season have been around even before the birth of Christ? Historians believe that the tradition of holiday music began in Ancient Rome where they celebrated Saturnalia. Much like Christmas with Jesus, this holiday was their way of commemorating the pagan god Saturn and the agricultural bounty he was believed to provide the Romans. They held a feast, exchanged gifts, and, of course, sang plenty of festive songs that put today’s Christmas carols to shame.
Fast forward to the rise of Christianity, followers thought music would be a good way to continue spreading the religion. They told stories of Jesus and his miracles through song and dance until the 19th century when these became widely regarded as Christmas carols.
From Silent Night to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Some Christmas Carols Have Surprising Histories
Wherever you are in the world, you may have heard of some of the more popular Christmas carols, like Jingle Bells, Silent Night, and The 12 Days of Christmas. Many of these songs are still being sung today — but if you look at the inspiration behind them, you might not feel so merry.
Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town
A death in the family is not really the inspiration you think a Christmas carol would have. But that’s exactly what spurred the lyrics to Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Prolific composer James Gillespie initially turned down an offer to write a holiday song in 1934. His brother had just died and he wasn’t in a very festive mood for the job.
However, he got on a New York City subway and reminisced about their childhood. He recalled the times their mother would tell him and his brother to be good because Santa Claus was watching. It inspired the lyrics, “You better watch out, better not cry / You better not pout, I’m telling you why / Santa Claus is comin’ to town.” He was said to have written the hit Christmas carol in under 20 minutes, which then sold over 30,000 records in a day.
Another grim context to the story of the Christmas carol is the time it was written. It was the height of the Great Depression, and the original lyrics included verses that encouraged people to do charitable acts for the less fortunate — which equaled to about 15 million unemployed Americans and their families.
Originally written as Stille Nacht in Austrian, Silent Night has become a popular piece for choirs to sing during Christmas. But the poem it was based on wasn’t intended for the holiday season at all, but to celebrate a time of peace after war.
Father Joseph Mohr visited a small Austrian village where his father lived. It was 1816, just a year after the bloody Napoleonic Wars that ravaged the empire for over a decade — the war that resulted in over 376,000 deaths of Austrian troops and civilians.
But one night, Father Mohr looked over the village and experienced peace and quiet for the first time in a long time. “Silent night / Holy Night / All is calm / All is bright,” describes the lack of sounds of war, which the priest associated with the coming of a savior. The end of the war that returned order to Austria and many other European countries inspired the poem that was eventually turned into the popular Christmas carol.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
Do You Hear What I Hear? was written as another wartime melody. It was 1962 and the threat of nuclear wear between the United States and the Soviet Union had broken out. For a period of 35 days, a standoff between the two sides led to the deployment of missiles in what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It was around this time that songwriter and composer duo Nöel Regney and Gloria Shayne were tasked to write a Christmas carol. The lyrics they came up with included, “Do you see what I see? / A star, a star, dancing in the night / With a tail as big as a kite.”
While many people immediately read the star as Jesus Christ, Regney and Shayne didn’t intend the symbol to be religious. It was a political plea to stop the missiles — which looked like stars with long tails — from being deployed and threatening the peace of the two nations. The song literally says, “Pray for peace, people, everywhere.” Regardless, the song was turned into a popular Christmas carol and became a hit.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The story that Santa Claus’ sleigh is pulled by eight reindeer has been around since as early as the 1800s. A ninth reindeer officially became part of the legend in 1939 when Robert May wrote the coloring book Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — a story that will inspire the Christmas carol of the same name ten years later.
Similar to Gillepsie’s holiday hit, what spurred Robert May to write was grief. His wife had just died. When asked to give up writing the book, he said, “I needed Rudolph now more than ever.”
He based the character on his daughter Barbara’s favorite animal, the deer, and turned Rudolph into a symbol of hope in dark times. Rudolph’s most distinctive feature is his shiny nose. The Christmas carol goes, “Rudolph with your nose so bright / Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”
And Barbara May adds that the character is partly based on her father. Robert saw himself as an outcast when he was growing up but he had qualities like Rudolph that made him special from the rest.
The fact that the story of Rudolph was written during a time of grief is a bit sad, especially knowing that it became a Christmas carol. But the fact that Robert May turned his grief to impart a lesson on uniqueness (and light during dark times) for generations to come gives it a happier ending.
Christmas isn’t the same without familiar and comforting tunes as accompaniment. But did you know that some popular Christmas carols, like Let It Snow, weren’t even written for the holiday? And even though the inspiration to some is not the most festive, it’s worth knowing the context behind popular Christmas carols.