Musical Holidays

Winter wonderland

One of the hallmarks of the Holiday season is music that fills public spaces this time of year. You hear the familiar jingles on the radio, in the stores, and on the streets. If you’ve ever wondered what is the history behind Christmas Musical Traditions, here is a quick guide.


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At the time of early Christianity (1-4 centuries CE), Christmas-themed hymns started taking over the previous pagan songs celebrating Winter Solstice. By 12th century, songs referring to Nativity themes and creatures had emerged. These motives have continued to be present in Christmas songs throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Some of the oldest Christmas songs came from folk plays that were popular in the Medieval Europe. The plays told the story of Jesus and the manger, and were often accompanied by music. By the 18th century, some folklorists collected all of the carols being sung around England and published them in songbooks, thus making the carols more popular. The tradition of Christmas carolers goes back to 19th-century, when performers gathered in public spaces to sing for passers-by. The carolers were often rewarded for their efforts with drinks and tasty treats. When settlers moved from England to North America they brought their carols with them. So, this lovely tradition still continues today in Europe and the United States, with many performers dressing in Victorian costumes as a nod to the past.

One of the most beloved carols is “Twelve Days of Christmas”. The version of the song that we’re most familiar with in the United States was published in a British collection, Songs of the Nativity; Being Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, by William Henry Husk in 1868. In his introduction to “Twelve Days of Christmas” the author explains that it was used in the game of forfeits and that “This piece is now printed for the first time in a collection of carols”. To read more about the song click HERE. Meanwhile, enjoy this spectacular rendition of “Twelve Days of Christmas” by The King’s Singers and The Tabernacle Choir.


Christmas songs are joyful and celebratory. Surprisingly, many songs include a sprinkling of minor chords throughout the melodies that are otherwise cheerful and upbeat. Melodies of Christmas tunes are often stirring and moving. Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet “The Nutcracker” is full of touching melodies, like “Waltz of the Flowers”. Other composers, such as: Arcangelo Corelli, Johanne Sebastian, and Antonio Vivaldi, used to write Christmas music, which explains the classical approach. Examples of classically composed Christmas music includes: Oratorio Messiah, Christmas oratorio, and Christmas concerto. See an excerpt from “The Nutcracker” ballet HERE and enjoy Tchaikovsky’s powerful score.

Many modern Christmas songs speak of nostalgia, like “White Christmas”:

I’m dreaming of a white ChristmasJust like the ones I used to knowWhere the treetops glisten and children listenTo hear sleigh bells in the snow

These sentimental songs evoke dreamy Christmases of the past. Images that bring to mind a large candle-lit room with Victorian decorations, a table set with sparkling white linens, crystal champagne flutes, poinsettia bouquets and delicious food. A large Christmas tree, surrounded by figurines of Santa, Mrs. Clause, and angels is glistening in the center of the room. And, of course, there’s a grand piano decorated with evergreen branches and Christmas ornaments.

Some Christmas songs you are well familiar with have long and fascinating stories. Did you know that “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” started out as an advertising jingle for Montgomery Ward? “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire” was actually written in the middle of a July heat. Nat King Cole, who recorded the song in 1946, made history by becoming the first black American to record a holiday standard. Read more surprising stories behind some of your favorite Holiday songs HERE.

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Modern Christmas songs tend to feature pop music melodies. Pop stars like Faith Hill, Mariah Carey, and Justin Bieber released modern Christmas music that went on to become commercial successes. “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey and “Santa Tell Me” by Ariana Grande are some of the most popular Christmas tunes that were recorded in recent years. Historically Christmas music was characterized by religious themes, including verses from the Bible, and often accompanied ceremonies at the Church. Christmas music written in the middle of 20th century and beyond is less about religion and more about the secular aspects of the holiday. The songs celebrate love and joy, evoke the winter weather, and talk about special time spent with family and friends. 
Click HERE to learn more about history of Christmas music.


Many contemporary musicians remake traditional Christmas songs, and add their own spin to the familiar classics. Sometimes they keep the traditional sound and other times they incorporate a pop or modern twist. Here’s an example of Arkadia’s artist JD Walter jazzing up a beloved Christmas tune “It’s Cold Outside”. 

We wish you a joyous holiday season filled with love, peace and music!

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