Wassail Away: How the Holiday Season became Synonymous with Song

Wassail Away: How the Holiday Season became Synonymous with Song

Each year, the surest sign that Christmas is upon us is the holiday music pouring out of speakers everywhere: in cars and shopping centers alike. You hear it at home, on the streets, in churches and concert halls – there’s no other time of year so strongly identified with a specific type of music. Nowadays it is hard to imagine a time when Christmas carols or Handel’s Messiah weren’t being sung in the street or played on the radio, but it wasn’t all that long ago that Christmas was a private holiday, so much so that public celebrations of it were often condemned by the church.

The Ancient Origins of Christmas Carols

Winter has been a time for traditions dating as far back as human history can go. After the harvest was over our ancestors would hunker down for winter, commune, and make way for the new year. In fact, the first carols were pagan in origin, and sung in celebration of the solstice. Out of these prehistoric rituals the English tradition of wassailing (a word derived from Norse meaning “be well, and in good health”) arises. Carolers would “wassail” their friends and neighbors with a song with the expectation of a simple gift in return. However, as the English church grew in stature, this practice and others were condemned due to their pagan heritage.

This changed in 1840 when the Prince Albert married Queen Victoria of England, bringing with him the German customs of his homeland, one of which was the celebration of Yule, a winter festival which, ironically, had its roots in a traditional pagan festival. The Old English and German customs mingled, reinvigorating public celebrations of the holiday. Many of the elements of our modern Christmas come out of the German tradition, including evergreen trees, wreaths, gift-giving, Christmas cards, and of course, caroling.

Christmas Goes Commercial

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George Frideric Handel, whose Messiah has become a staple of the holiday season.

The royal marriage and the cultural shift that followed are directly responsible for many of the holiday songs we know and love. This renewed interest in Christmas coincided with the industrial revolution in England and created a sizeable demand for new music. Nearly every popular Christmas carol was written in the decades following the marriage between Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, most notably “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “Good King Wenceslas,” and many more.

Although the resurgence of Christmas as a public holiday had a massive impact on carols and other commercial holiday music, a smaller but no less significant change occurred in the concert repertoire as well. Handel’s Messiah, originally composed in celebration of Easter, became a Christmastime favorite due to its uplifting emotional tone and religious exuberance. Since then it has become a hallowed tradition and it is rare to find a concert hall that doesn’t program the choral work at some time or another during the holiday season.

In the past 34 years, MidAmerica Productions has staged over 1300 concerts in Carnegie Hall and in historic venues all over the world. To have your performance group join us in 2018 visit our website or call us at 212-239-0205.

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