December 2021

All About ... Holiday Music


Happy holidays! There’s so much to love about this time of year—the decor, the food, and most importantly, the music! Today we’re going to explore the history of holiday music and holiday music around the world.

A lot of today’s most popular holiday music is centered around Christmas songs and themes. Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas (Is You)” debuted in 1994 and pop musicians worldwide started releasing holiday music and albums. But holiday songs started centuries before. Take a look at this quick timeline:

  • ~129 AD - as Christianity spread and took over Winter Solstice celebrations, themes of the nativity started becoming prevalent around Christmastime. This continued until the 12th century.
  • 1521 - “Boar’s Head Carol” is the first holiday song to be printed
  • 1700s - holiday music originated with lyrics inspired by Bible verses (such as the song “What Child is This” “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”). George Frideric Handel publishes a book of Christmas carols, including songs like “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
  • 1810 - Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha married Queen Victoria of England and introduced German Christmas traditions (gift giving, trees, carols) to England
  • 1857 - the song “Jingle Bells” is written for Thanksgiving. Other songs from the 1800s include “Silent Night” (1818), “Hark! The Herald” (1840), and “Good King Wenceslas (1853).
  • 1928 - Choir of King’s College which is Cambridge’s Christmas Eve Carol service, was broadcast on the radio for the first time
  • 1934 - The Great Depression and the radio make holiday music more popular and less religious. Hits of the 30s include “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Winter Wonderland.”

During World War II, Christmas and holiday music became even more popular. Bing Crosby recorded “White Christmas” in 1941, just 18 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. This song would become his most requested song during overseas visits to the troops for the duration of the war. The forties and fifties bring an explosion in Christmas music, with hits like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and “Frosty the Snowman.”

Christmas and holiday music continued to evolve after World War II. In 1957, Elvis Presley released “Blue Christmas” and turned holiday songs from something more traditional into something modern by incorporating rock n roll sounds. During the Vietnam War, John Lennon and Yoko Ono made Christmas music political with “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” And the 1980s brought pop music sounds to holiday songs, with Wham’s “Last Christmas,” and other now-classics like “Jingle Bell Rock” (1985) and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (1987).

Christmas isn’t the only winter holiday to have musical traditions. Like Christmas, Hanukkah songs started out as more religious in nature before becoming more secular. There are three Hanukkah blessings that are sung around the menorah. The third blessing is only sung on the first night of Hanukkah while lighting the menorah. The tune for the blessings was composed in the early 1900s by Samuel E. Goldfarb and Israel Goldfarb. Ma’oz Tzur is a Jewish poem written in Hebrew that tells the history of Judaism in five stanzas. It is traditionally sung during Hanukkah.

“The Dreidel Song,” or “Ikh Bin A Kleyner Dreydl” describes playing with a traditional dreidel and is popular with children around the world. More contemporary Hanukkah music has emerged in recent years, including “Hanukkah Hey-Ya,” a spoof of the Outkast pop song “Hey Ya.” Another popular song is “The Hanukkah Song,” which started as an SNL skit with Adam Sandler. The a cappella group The Maccabeats went viral in 2010 with their song “Candlelight,” and now release a new Hanukkah song every year.

You can check out other popular holiday songs from around the world with this playlist:

  • “Petit Papa Noel” (France) - tells the story of a small child waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve
  • “La Fiesta de Pilito” (Puerto Rico) - focuses on holiday food
  • “Snow Candy” (South Korea) - an upbeat K-pop love song set during the holidays
  • “Mi Burrito Sabanero” (Venezuela) - tells the story of a little donkey going to Bethlehem
  • “Betelehemu” (Nigeria) - a hymn written by a Nigerian drummer
  • “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit” (Philippines) - this translates to “Christmas Has Arrived” and is an upbeat dance song
  • “Los Peces en el Río” (Spain and Latin American) - this classic tells the story of Jesus’s birth through the eyes of fish in a nearby river
  • "Musevisa" (Norway) - this story tells the story of a family of mice celebrating the holidays (and avoiding the mousetrap!)
  • "The Wexford Carol" (Ireland) - this song dates back to the 12th century!

What’s your favorite holiday song? Tell us at #inspiresocialstudies

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