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The Victorians and White Christmas:

Developments in our Christmas Music Traditions

Published December 12, 2016
By Barry Stapleton

It’s hard to imagine, but at the beginning of the nineteenth century Christmas was hardly on the map. Christmas was viewed as an English custom after the American Revolution, and its celebration fell out of favor in the new nation. Various political and religious conflicts downplayed the holiday’s celebration in England, although its importance remained strong in Germany. The Victorians really gave us the Christmas we celebrate today, thanks to writers like Charles Dickens and Washington Irving, as well as Queen Victoria and her German born husband, Albert.

Religion and its sacred traditions of the birth of Jesus continued as they do today. But it was during the Victorian age that the commercial side of Christmas was invented. By the late 1800s businesses would shut down over Christmas, decorated Christmas trees were the norm, Macy's Christmas windows were the main attraction in New York, and the exchange of gifts marked the occasion.

Prior to 1300 nearly all of the songs or music associated with Christmas would be sacred. Chants or Litanies associated with the mass or service would be the core music. Later there were more classical musical settings for Gloria, such as Vivaldi’s, or even Handel’s Messiah, although originally written for Easter.

In Christmas music we see three major developments over time. The first development towards a more secular music was the early carols, and the second development was the explosion of Christmas sentiment during the Victorian era which led to many Christmas songs being published. The third development was the success of the song “White Christmas,” written by Irving Berlin and sung by Bing Crosby, which led to many more Christmas songs in our repertoire.

Early Carols

By the 1400s carols had become popular in England. They treated religious beliefs in a more popular secular form. The carols were sung by wassailers who would venture from house to house singing carols for drinks or food and gifts. This was also done at other celebrations besides Christmas.

These songs would not have been sung in a church environment. Unfortunately the religious establishment took this seriously and while the tradition of singing carols continues to this day, they were often banned through the centuries by the Catholic & Protestant churches.

Christmas Carol - Library of Congress

"Christmas Carol"
1872, Library of Congress

Early Carols 1500-1800

I Saw Three Ships

God Rest ye Merry Gentleman

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Joy to the World!

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Twelve Days of Christmas

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks

The Victorian Era Christmas Music

With the growth of Christmas as a major event during the Victorian era, music also played its part. Some of our more classic Christmas music and songs were written during this period, which was during most of the nineteenth century.

Victorian Era Christmas Songs:

1818 Silent Night Franz Xaver Gruber, Joseph Mohr
1824 O Christmas Tree Ernst Anschütz
1833 The First Noel Cornish origin
1847 O Holy Night Adolphe Adam
1849 It Came Upon A Midnight Clear Edmund Sears
1853 Good King Wenceslas John Mason Neale
1857 Jingle Bells James Lord Pierpont
1857 We Three Kings of Orient Are John Henry Hopkins, Jr.
1862 Angels We Have Heard on High James Chadwick (Translation)
1864 Up on the House Top Benjamin Hanby
1865 Go Tell it on the Mountain Compiled by John Wesley Work, Jr.
1865 What Child Is This? William Chatterton Dix
1868 O Little Town of Bethlehem Phillips Brooks, Lewis Redner
1887 Away in a Manger James Ramsey Murray (setting)


One Horse Open Sleigh - Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection

"One Horse Open Sleigh"
1857, Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection

White Christmas

The final development really didn’t happen until 1942, a full half century after the last big Christmas hit, “Away in a Manger” in 1887. This is interesting as this skips over the largest effort at songwriting in history, Tin Pan Alley, which ran from the late 1890s to around 1920. Yes, Tin Pan Alley composers wrote many Christmas related songs, but none to my knowledge became big hits.

When Irving Berlin wrote White Christmas in 1940 for a musical revue, Holiday Inn, it was a sentimental, sad song. Berlin thought some of the other songs in the show had a better chance at becoming a hit. But, the songs more sad sentiment came from the death of his son, who died on Christmas day in 1928 at only three weeks old. Christmas Day to Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was visiting his son’s grave every year.

After releasing the song, Bing Crosby echoed this effect of the song when sung to troops in WWII:

“I hesitated about doing it because invariably it caused such a nostalgic yearning among the men, that it made them sad,” Crosby said in an interview. “Heaven knows, I didn’t come that far to make them sad. For this reason, several times I tried to cut it out of the show, but these guys just hollered for it.”

The song’s first public performance was on Christmas Day, 1941 -- just 18 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Bing Crosby on his radio show The Kraft Music Hall on NBC.

Crosby later recorded the song in 1942, and history was made. It still is the best-selling single of all time and stayed in various Billboard charts for decades afterwards.

Besides all of the accolades the song accumulated, it was its commercial success that animated the last vestiges of Tin Pan Alley. Within a year other Christmas songs were becoming major hits. Within the next decade 10-12 of these songs became classics of our Christmas music traditions.

1930-1960s Christmas Songs

1933 Winter Wonderland Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith
1934 Santa Claus is Coming to Town John Frederick Coots, Haven Gillespie
1940 White Christmas Irving Berlin
1941 The Little Drummer Boy Katherine Kennicott Davis
1943 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane
1943 I’ll Be Home for Christmas Kim Gannon, Walter Kent
1945 The Christmas Song Robert Wells, Mel Tormé
1945 Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne
1947 Here Comes Santa Claus Oakley Haldeman, Gene Autry
1948 Sleigh Ride Leroy Anderson
1948 Blue Christmas Billy Hayes, Jay W. Johnson
1949 Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer Johnny Marks
1950 Silver Bells Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
1950 Frosty the Snowman Walter "Jack" Rollins, Steve Nelson
1951 It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas Meredith Willson
1952 I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus  Tommie Connor
1953 Santa Baby Joan Javits, Philip Springer
1954 There’s no Place Like Home for the Holidays Al Stillman, Robert Allen
1956 Jingle Bell Rock Joe Beal, Jim Boothe
1958 Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree Johnny Marks
1962 A Holly Jolly Christmas Johnny Marks
1963 It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year Edward Pola, George Wyle


White Christmas - Milwaukee Irish Fest Collection

"White Christmas"
1942, Milwaukee Irish Fest Collection

These developments do not reflect all of our Christmas music, but I think it shows the progression of Christmas music through time. Certainly it has become more secular and less sacred. Even the titles from the Victorian era use words such as Holy, Bethlehem, Angel’s and manger in them which references the birth of Christ.  There’s very few sacred references mentioned in the twentieth century songs. These have more of a seasonal approach.

What does all this mean? Whether or not the development of our Christmas music is an indication of our faith is probably for someone else to decide. It is not a new thing that popular music has separated itself from sacred music. In fact today we now separate it out into Christian music which has its own charts.

Overall the repertoire for Christmas music is very extensive. From sacred to secular, serious to novelty, sad to happy: it’s all good and celebrates the season.

Merry Christmas!

Barry Stapleton

CelticMKE | 1532 Wauwatosa Avenue | Milwaukee, WI 53213-2623 | Phone: (414) 476-3378 | Email:

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