My first morning of December this year was memorable. My wife Cari woke me up, at full volume, to “The Little Drummer Boy” – a recent music video by evangelical rock group For King & Country.
This exuberant twist on the classic “Drummer Boy,” arrived hard on the heels of my late evening with Handel’s “Messiah,” presented at Port Dover’s Old Town Hall by Ron Beckett’s orchestral ensemble Arcady. Even 278 years later, “Messiah” still sounds wondrous. (I wonder if any hits of today will still sound that good that far into the future.)
“Messiah” and “Drummer Boy” got me thinking about the roots of Christmas music.
Some believe it has fourth-century Roman, Latin-language origins. At the time, music was hymnal and featured titles such as “Veni redemptor gentium” by Ambrose of Milan.
The genre continued to develop and spread with the influence of figures like St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. By the 15th century, English language carols made their debut in chaplain John Awdley’s “Caroles of Cristemas.” The next few hundred years would produce seasonal standards such as “The 12 Days of Christmas” and “O Christmas Tree.”
Much like those today who eschew the word “Christmas,” England under Cromwell banned Christmas caroling, labelling it as pagan. In fact, they banned any celebration of Christmas. This continued until the Stuarts, under Charles II, allowed caroling again in 1660. Like the more recent 1960s, the 1660s were a time of musical change and development.
In Queen Victoria’s time, the relationship between music and Christmas grew. Some of the biggest holiday hits of today also found an enthusiastic audience back then. These included Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Americans Phillips Brooks and Lewis Redner.
During and after the Second World War, Christmas carols boomed. U.S. songwriters and artists churned out many of the classics heard in abundance all over the English-speaking world. A standout is Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” The Guinness Book of World Records lists the Bing Crosby version as the best-selling single of all time, chalking up sales in excess of 50 million.
Snowbound Canadian musicians have always jumped on the sleigh and sung to the spirit of the season. Artists include the likes of Stompin’ Tom Connors, Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, The Barenaked Ladies, Crash Test Dummies, Anne Murray, Sarah MacLachlan, Gordon Lightfoot, and The Band. They and many more have stood under the mistletoe and given Christmas a sonic peck on the cheek.
From torch singers to punk rockers to hip hop artists, I am surprised by the range of artists to have played Christmas music. Especially when they did duets. Think Bing Crosby and David Bowie aligning their windpipes to sing “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” on Crosby’s televised “Merrie Olde Christmas Special.”
Despite diverse reputation, background, style, and belief, artists were known to join vocal forces in honour of the holiday. Then there was that cool Sex Pistols/Thin Lizzy hybrid act called “The Greedies,” who in 1979 were rocking a power chord Christmas medley for British television. When it came to rock music, those two bands were contrasts in sound and look, but they found aural symmetry.
And similarly, at this time of year, we of differing political stripes come together to raise some cheer in the spirit of the season.
Toby Barrett is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk