At Christmas, people seem to get all hung up on tradition. The fixation with “having an old-fashioned” holiday occasionally seems to go over the top with some folks. There are favorites that must happen every December, just as they have happened for the past 2,000 years, or however long Grandma has lived in that house. Traditional meals, traditional decorations, traditional songs. And after an afternoon of hearing some not-too-inspiring Christmas tunes played repeatedly over mall public address speakers, I began to realize just how un-traditional some of these tunes are.
Popular artists pen new Christmas music as visions of sprawling bank accounts dance in their heads. The result? Some forgettable music, and I use the term ‘music’ loosely. So I asked myself, “What music did the people sing for Christmas 100 years ago?” If today’s offerings seem to be no better than “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” what are those good, old-fashioned traditional Christmas tunes?
So I did some research. I knew a lot of this, but I’m betting many don’t realize that those traditional tunes like “Frosty the Snowman,” Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “White Christmas” weren’t around for the Christmas of 1913. Those were written in 1950, 1949, and 1942 respectively. How about “Silver Bells?” 1950. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town?” 1934. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas?” 1943. And don’t even consider “Jingle Bell Rock” or “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” or any song with the word “rock” in the title. Most of those songs are “traditional” to us because they were “popular” to our parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Yup, these tunes are on the same level as a Madonna or a Mariah Carey record, only a few decades older.
You probably wouldn’t be surprised that if you want to find tunes from the Christmas of 1913, the easy way is to look in a church hymnal. How about “Silent Night” which was originally written and sung in German in 1818. “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” dates back to 1849, “Away in a Manger” to 1885, and “Angels We Have Heard on High” to 1862. Non-church songs would have been sung 100 years ago also. Deck the Hall was first published in English just after the Civil War. (If you don’t know when that was, look it up.) And Jingle Bells actually does date back to when people used one-horse open sleighs, so that was probably sung. But if you think “Winter Wonderland” or “Sleigh Ride” or anything about roasting chestnuts on a open fire is traditional enough to be 100 years old, think again. Most all of those Christmas songs you can’t get out of your head are so young that it’s hard to regard them as traditional.
But you may find “traditional” where you may not expect. While in Israel this past summer, my American group and a group from Haiti wound up in a small memorial building at the same time. Each group would take a turn singing a song in native language; we would sing “Amazing Grace,” then they would sing something in French that was beautiful but unfamiliar to us. Then the Haitians started singing a tune that seemed familiar. When they got to the chorus I realized why it was familiar. Both groups sang together, “Glor—or—or—ia, In excelsis Deo.” Goosebumps. Now that’s traditional.
Merry Christmas to you and yours, whatever your traditions may be. And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, have a happy Dec. 25th.