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.
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.
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:
||Franz Xaver Gruber, Joseph Mohr
||O Christmas Tree
||The First Noel
||O Holy Night
||It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
||Good King Wenceslas
||John Mason Neale
||James Lord Pierpont
||We Three Kings of Orient Are
||John Henry Hopkins, Jr.
||Angels We Have Heard on High
||James Chadwick (Translation)
||Up on the House Top
||Go Tell it on the Mountain
||Compiled by John Wesley Work, Jr.
||What Child Is This?
||William Chatterton Dix
||O Little Town of Bethlehem
||Phillips Brooks, Lewis Redner
||Away in a Manger
||James Ramsey Murray (setting)
"One Horse Open Sleigh"
1857, Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection
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
||Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith
||Santa Claus is Coming to Town
||John Frederick Coots, Haven Gillespie
||The Little Drummer Boy
||Katherine Kennicott Davis
||Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
||Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane
||I’ll Be Home for Christmas
||Kim Gannon, Walter Kent
||The Christmas Song
||Robert Wells, Mel Tormé
||Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!
||Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne
||Here Comes Santa Claus
||Oakley Haldeman, Gene Autry
||Billy Hayes, Jay W. Johnson
||Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
||Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
||Frosty the Snowman
||Walter "Jack" Rollins, Steve Nelson
||It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
||I Saw Momma Kissing Santa Claus
||Joan Javits, Philip Springer
||There’s no Place Like Home for the Holidays
||Al Stillman, Robert Allen
||Jingle Bell Rock
||Joe Beal, Jim Boothe
||Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
||A Holly Jolly Christmas
||It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
||Edward Pola, George Wyle
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.