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Saturday, December 23, 2023

Sing a Song of Christmas

 Journal Opinion Dec 20, 2023

The North County Chorus rehearses for a performance in a 2012 photograph. The chorus, founded by the late Harry Rowe of Wells River, has been a Christmas season mainstay for decades in the Twin States.

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 Songs.

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 holiday music

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 secular piece.

“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 Christmas music. 

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 “Silent Night.”

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 coast. 

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 Woodsville. 

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.

 “White Christmas 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 1955.

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.

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