Journal Opinion Dec 20, 2023
At the 2013 Annual Christmas Tree Lighting Events, sponsored by the Piermont Town Common Committee, Piermont Village School students led by music teacher Laurel Dodge, sung carols around the Christmas tree and decorated the tree with ornaments.
“Beneath the familiar melodies and words, Christmas songs
reveal a portrait of the American psyche past and present, wishing
simultaneously to embrace nostalgia, commerce, charity, carnival, romance, and
travesty.” Ronald B. Lanford Jr. A Cultural History of American Christmas
In past Decembers, I have written columns on the general history
of Christmas as well as specific themes such as, Santa Claus, Christmas foods,
gifts and Christmas pageants and parades. They are posted on my blog at
larrycoffin.blogspot.com. have only included enough bi
This column about Christmas music. It exlores the roots of
sacred carols and the development of modern Christmas songs. How residents listened to and performed these
musical pieces is included.
I have only included bits and pieces to remind readers how
hard it is to imagine the Christmas season without favorite sacred and secular
Many of the most popular Christmas carols were brought to
this country by European migrants. Favorites such as “O Come All Ye Faithful,””
Good King Wenceslas,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Good Christian Men,
Rejoice” have been part of their Christmas festivals for centuries.
In the 19th century, there was renewed interest in Christmas
songs and carols. “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” (1849) and “Away in A Manger”
(1885) reflected a religious theme, while “Jungle Bells” (1857) was a rare
“Silent Night, Holy Night” was written in 1818 by Austrians
Franz Xaver Gruber and Josef Mahr. It was first performed in America in
1839.Many touching stories are connected with this carol, including it being
sung simultaneously by French, German and English soldiers during a temporary 1914
Christmas truce in World War I.
In 1943, Bradford’s United
Opinion reprinted the story of a group of American sailors on Guadalcanal.
Their ship had been sunk, and they found themselves on the island during the
battle with only the supplies provided by adjacent Marine companies.
But on the Sunday before Christmas, “the men stood in the
mud and listened as the band played carols. It had rained the night before and
the jungle was moist and hot and steaming, and the moisture had its effect on
the instruments. But the band played and the men sang, Silent Night, holy
night…it was a long way from Bethlehem to the South Pacific.”
Before the early 20th century, Americans purchased their
favorite Christmas music on sheet music or Christmas music books to play in
their own homes. It was not uncommon for groups to gather around the family
piano or sing in choral groups. Advent and Christmas church services included
traditional carols sung by the congregation and choirs.
In the 1920s,
community members gathered around the Community Christmas tree at Memorial Park
in Bradford or on the Common in Lyme. Going caroling around local villages was
often mentioned in the Opinion.
In 1927, Bradford carolers serenaded shut-ins, as did
Newbury’s Sabbath School’s children in 1928 and Fairlee girls in 1931. In 1955,
the Methodist Youth Fellowship of Bradford continued a tradition that is still performed
area groups today.
Well into the late 20th century, community notes in the Opinion mentioned the singing of
Christmas music by members of local clubs during December meetings. These
included Women’s Clubs and Church organizations.
Public school students of all ages were involved in
Christmas pageants and festivals. Significant in these was the group singing of
Beginning in the 1880s, Christmas cantatas were offered in
many local towns. A cantata is a
narrative piece of music for voice and instruments. It usually includes solos
as well as choral numbers. Pieces include both sacred and secular music.
Church choirs, youth and school choruses as well as
community groups offered these holiday programs. Soloists included talented
locals and visiting guest performers.
Newspaper notices of rehearsals, performances and reviews of
Christmas cantatas were commonplace after 1888.
The notice of the upcoming 1897 East Corinth production of “Santa’s
Surprise” mentioned: “The whole piece is very nice and promises to be one of
the nicest Christmas entertainments given in this place for a long time.”
In 1951, the Bradford Congregational Church chorus took
their “Christmas Bells” cantata on the road. When they performed in West
Fairlee Center on Dec 16, the audience was appreciative but small, as the
temperature was 28 degrees below.
Performances were in town halls, school buildings and
churches. Sometimes, chorus groups from several towns would combine their
talents. In 1963, Bradford Academy and Woodsville, Wells River and Haverhill
High Schools choruses combined to present two Christmas concerts.
Of all the local choral groups, the North Country Chorus
stands out. This year’s Christmas program was their 75th. Their first Christmas
concert was held on Dec 1, 1947 at the Littleton Methodist Church.
Within a month, the group formally organized, and the first
Christmas North County Chorus concert was held in the Woodsville Methodist
Church in 1948. That year’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah” was the first of
many times the group included that oratorio in their annual holiday program.
In 1951, Wells River’s Mary Whitney Rowe became conductor,
continuing until 1994 when her son Alan Rowe took over. In 1957, Bradford’s
Katrina Munn and Warren Geissinger became accompanists. The group performs in a
variety of venues around the area.
Another group that performs locally during the Christmas
season is the all-women Pine Hill Singers.
Formed in 1996, the rehearsals are held in Littleton. This year’s
program included “music, both classical and traditional, from across continents
and centuries, of winter light and snowy landscapes.” The director is Judy Abbott
and Anita Bonnevie is the accompanist.
The Upper Valley Voices, previously known as the Thetford
Chamber Singers, also offers a holiday concert in Thetford and Hanover.
Approximately 25 area singers perform a program of holiday-inspired music from
the Renaissance to the present day.
Kevin Quigley is their director and Henry Danaher is the accompanist.
The early focus on formal and informal group singing,
changed with the introduction of the radio, phonographs, motion pictures, and
later, television and the internet. Americans were more likely to listen to
Christmas music than to sing it.
Recordings of Christmas music were first heard on wax
cylinders. In the 1890s, disc records were introduced. Companies, such as
Victor Records, offered Christmas music to be played on record players. In
1909, a Burlington Free Press advertisement listed Victor’s recorded version of
The first radio broadcast of a Christmas carol was in Dec
1906. Engineer Reginald Fessenden played “O Holy Night” on his violin in a
transmission heard only by ship radio operators along Massachusetts’s Atlantic
Commercial radio began broadcasting in 1920. As the number of stations increased, they
included Christmas music in their programming.
Between 1935 and 1953, the radio program “Your Hit Parade” was broadcast every Saturday
night. It was also a television program from 1950 to 1959. The radio program
coincided with the introduction of some of the most well-known Christmas songs.
These included “I’ll
Be Home For Christmas” (1943), “Let It Snow” (1945),” The Christmas Song”
(1946), “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949), “Frosty the Snowman” (1950),
and “Silver Bells” (1950). All of these are still included among the most
frequently played holiday songs.
There was a Bradford Five and Ten advertisement in December
1948 for holiday records. They featured artists such as Bing Crosby, Frank
Sinatra, Gene Autry, and Fred Waring.
One of the top Christmas songs since its introduction is
Judy Garland’s song “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Written by Ralph
Bane and Hugh Martin, it first appeared in 1944 in the MGM film “Meet Me In St.
Louis.” The film was shown locally in 1945, including at Tegu’s Orpheum in
No contemporary Christmas song was proven more popular than the one written by Irving Berlin and introduced by
Bing Crosby on his NBC radio program on Christmas Day, 1941. Entitled “White Christmas,” it was written
for the film “Holiday Inn.” By October, the song was number one on Your Hit
Parade where it stayed for 10 weeks.
It was the number-one single in 1942, 1943 and 1944. In 1943, it received the Academy Award for
Best Song. It holds the distinction of being the world’s best-selling record,
with over 50 million sold.
changed Christmas music forever, both by revealing the high potential market
for Christmas songs and by establishing the theme of home and nostalgia that
would ring through Christmas music evermore,” wrote Dave Marshall and Steve
Propes in the book about the song.
The original film was remade in 1954 as “White Christmas,”
and unlike the original film, was placed, but not filmed, in Vermont. The popular movie, starring Bing Crosby,
Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney, was shown at the Bradford and
Fairlee movie houses and at the Woodsville and Fairlee drive-in theaters in
I spoke with three radio stations about their Christmas
music schedule. Waterbury’s WDEV went on
the air in 1931. After December first, they begin to “sprinkle” Christmas music
into their schedule.
WYKR’s Teresa Puffer said they begin selections the day
after Thanksgiving and build up to an all-Christmas music program from noon on
Christmas Eve until midnight on the 25th. They did try starting on Thanksgiving
Day, but got a negative audience reaction.
Helen Lyons, musical
director for Vermont Public Classical, mentioned that the station follows about
the same schedule. However, in addition to classical selections and orchestra
holiday pops, the station includes Hanukkah music.
I asked readers in an informal survey how they felt about
Christmas music. Favorites ranged from
popular selections such as Jingle Bells and Away In a Manger” to less well
known selections from “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and singles “Mele
Kalikimaka” and “Fairy Tale of New York.”
When asked what selection made them cringe, respondents
listed “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,”
and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The latter was described as both a song
of inclusiveness and one of “blatant bullying.”
Asked about when radio stations and stores should begin
broadcasting Christmas music, most respondents were opposed to starting too
early, generally meaning before December 1.
Some felt the effectiveness of making the season bright, wore off after
weeks and weeks of repetition. Those who
supported music being played at all, favored the all-Christmas day programming.
Some respondents glowed in their feelings about Christmas
music. For them, it made the season and t reminded them of earlier times. One told me he remembered listening to them
with his grandparents, and when he hears Christmas music, it made him think of
them. Several spoke of memorizing a wide
selection and singing them either in organized groups or alone.
Others were very critical of how Christmas music is foisted
on unappreciative listeners. One wrote that music on the radio or in stores
yearly remind her that “not all folks celebrate the holiday, and the music only
serves to divide us more.”
There are others for whom Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas”
(1957) has a deeper meaning as Christmas music reminds them of those they have
lost or of unhappy holidays of their past.
As a reminder that Christmas music has different meanings at
different ages, I attended Christmas Eve services in the mid-1970s when Rev
Robert Robb of Piermont would ask for their favorite carols. Snuggled between
Little Town of Bethlehem and the candlelit finale “Silent Night,” a small voice might ask for
“The Santa Claus Song.”
Katherine Babbott of Thetford Center shared the following
story. Her family was attending their church Christmas singalong. Carly, the
children’s favorite babysitter, was in charge and invited those gathered “to
raise their hand and request a Christmas song.
Our little boy twin, age 4, raised his hand and politely
proclaimed, ‘Please sing the ABC song!’ at which point Carly said ‘Ok, let’s
sing the ABC song!’ It was a special moment in our church and our lives when
the choir and congregation responded in a rousing chorus of the ABC song. There
were many smiles and tears at the beauty and innocence of the moment.”
Even while wondering if the annual onslaught of Christmas
music may be too soon and too much, many cannot imagine the Christmas season
without it. Whether its background music
in the stores, television specials, radio broadcasts, or songs by local
performers or selections from their home collection, many find themselves humming
or singing along to their favorite song performed by their favorite singers.
And having a Merry Christmas.