Christmas as Folk: Why Holiday Standards Belong in the Folk Songbook
There are plenty of topics for spirited musical debate out there: Are you a Beatles person or a Stones person? Who are the pillars of hip-hop? Which city yielded the most authentic type of blues? Did video truly kill the radio star?
Yet very few subjects generate as heated a level of discussion and scholarly research as the matter of what elevates or invalidates a song for the sonic sainthood known as folk music. Since its earliest days, the term “folk music” has eluded a definition that folklorists, musicologists, historians, revivalists, and musicians can agree on that cleanly and concisely lays out its boundaries. Even Bob Dylan himself – arguably the most mainstream standard bearer of folk music in the modern era – hasn’t been foolish enough to try to soundbite the tradition’s essence, instead conceding in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One that “It’s hard to describe what makes a character or an event folk song worthy.”
In lieu of punchy delineators, traditional folk music is often talked about in terms of qualifying characteristics. In most cases, this allows for a very broad door through which permitted songs can enter the hallowed folk halls. For example, Folkways Records released 2,168 albums between 1948 and 1986 that in their words encompassed “traditional, ethnic, and contemporary music from around the world; poetry, spoken word, and instructional recordings in numerous languages; and documentary recordings of individuals, communities, current events, and natural sounds.” Essentially, what’s generally accepted as traditional folk music can be categorized by the following traits:
- represents (and is birthed out of) individual communities and collective people groups
- is orally transmitted and continually passed down through generations
- is easily adapted to simple instrumentation
- evolves over time to remain relevant in new eras
- is used to commemorate important events
- participates in the myth-building of its own folklore and folk iconography
- in most cases, exists in a space of collective consciousness where the songs are incredibly well-known without there being a “definitive” version attached to a specific recording or artist.
While a song doesn’t have to check all of those boxes to be granted entry into the folk catalog, it must represent the spirit of the list, either in its combination of qualifiers or in its absolute embodiment of one or two of the main aspects. By these measures, then, Christmas standards are nothing less than festive folk songs that significantly meet most, if not all, of the required criteria.
Granted, there have always been some popular Christmas songs that have found their way into traditional folk music conversations. The esteemed Roud Folk Song Index boasts a handful of older English Christmas carols like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” among its collection of over 200,000 folk song references, and the sonic roots of “Good King Wenceslas” and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” can be found in the 16th century Finnish songbook Piae Cantiones, which many folk scholars point to as one of the earliest examples of a Christmas song collection in print. Even during the American folk music revival of the mid-20th century, singers like Pete Seeger and Andrew Rowan Summers used the renewed interest in traditional folk music to participate in a little cultural reverse engineering by releasing Christmas albums that took popular seasonal favorites and returned them back to their centuries-old origins by incorporating the original lyrics and melodies.
However, outside of history and academia, there doesn’t seem to be much of an allowance for discussing Christmas standards with the same gravitas that is shown to traditional folk music. Folk songs are an “of the people, by the people, for the people” form of identification, value sharing, and storytelling that can be used by ethnomusicologists as an integral piece of cultural anthropology. By contrast, Christmas songs are not often held in the same high regard as potential tools for understanding people groups more deeply or for unlocking additional insights about communities, geographies, cultures, and time periods. Granted, “This Land is Your Land” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” may not appear to have much in common on the surface, but apply that list of traditional folk qualifiers to Christmas standards and the resulting outcomes are astoundingly similar in nature and execution.
Representation of the Folk
One of the most integral tenets of traditional folk musicology is representation. At their heart, folk songs are unique to a certain people group and help share their stories, attributes, memories, and values. They can be used to commemorate special events (like recurring seasonal changes or yearly observances of important moments) and are employed for communal gatherings like religious meetings and cultural assemblages. By applying this foundational folk song filter, Christmas songs ring pitch-perfect to that ethos. Not only do Christmas songs help to identify and exhibit the customs and rituals of a singular people group, but they also help to distinguish the many diverse ways that the holiday can be marked and celebrated — culturally, religiously, nostalgically, seasonally, geographically — by different sub-groups within the larger group overall.
For those who celebrate Christmas as a cultural event reveling with family, friends, and strangers in the goodwill of the season, carols like “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Home for The Holidays” provide snapshots of communal interactions in joyfully shared experiences. For those who celebrate Christmas as a religious observance honoring the birth of Jesus, hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” “O Holy Night,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “We Three Kings” cover different elements of the biblical Christ child narrative. For those who celebrate Christmas as a nostalgic practice full of reminders, symbols, and iconography, songs like “White Christmas,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman” capture ingredients of the larger folk mythology that uniquely color the holiday. For those who celebrate Christmas as a seasonal demarcation notating winter and its changing weather conditions, songs like “Sleigh Ride,” “Winter Wonderland,” “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” and “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” salute the majestic qualities of a welcomed snowfall by offering a multitude of scenarios that are elevated by its presence. For those who celebrate Christmas with geographic nuances, modern standards like “Tennessee Christmas,” “Christmas in New Orleans,” “Fairytale of New York,” and the oft-removed, Los Angeles-ized intro to “White Christmas” (“The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway / There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A.”) individualize the seasonal experience even more by highlighting regional shadings and topographic distinctions.
Taking a look at the geographical roots of some of the most popular Christmas standards allows for an interesting glimpse into the practices and values of the communities that birthed them. For example, “Carol of the Bells” has its musical roots in a Ukrainian pastoral folk song known as “Shchedryk” (translated as “The Little Swallow”) that was written by Mykola Leontovych in 1919 to celebrate the Ukrainian new year. Three years later, American composer Peter J. Wilhousky heard a Carnegie Hall performance of the song by the Ukrainian National Chorus and the bell-like tones of the melody inspired him to write new lyrics to the existing music. Wilhousky published the song in 1936 under his new title, “Carol of the Bells,” and it immediately became a popular American Christmas carol that has gone on to become one of the most genre-adaptable Christmas songs of all time. Interestingly, “Carol of the Bells” has often been recorded as just an instrumental, partially due to the song’s immediately recognizable melodic hook and partially due to the fact that the song’s music is in the public domain while its lyrics are not (as Wilhousky could only claim copyright on his new text).
Another example is the German carol “O Tannenbaum,” which was based off a 16th-century folk song called “Ach Tannenbaum” that used an evergreen tree as a metaphor to represent faithful, steadfast love. Contrary to popular understanding, the German word Tannenbaum translates merely as “fir tree,” not specifically as “Christmas tree.” The Christmas angle wasn’t added in until the early 1800s, when a German musician named Ernst Anschütz wrote two new verses (one referencing Weihnachtszeit, or “Christmastime”) around the same time that the custom of the Christmas tree was becoming more popular. To take the geographically based trappings of “O Tannenbaum” even further, no fewer than four states have used the song’s catchy melody to craft their own state songs, including “Maryland, My Maryland,” “Michigan, My Michigan,” “Florida, My Florida,” and the slightly more creatively named “The Song of Iowa.”
Evolution and Adaptation
Another key element in traditional folk categorization is the intentional evolution and adaptation of a song to ensure its endurance through multiple generations and changing cultural eras. Once again, a wide variety of Christmas standards are marked by this hand-me-down folk process, having survived multiple iterations and evolutions to remain just as popular today as they were when they were written decades and even centuries before.
Take the Christmas hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” for example. Although some folk scholars point to textual origins that stretch all the way back to the seven Latin O Antiphons of the 8th century, most point to the 1710 Germanic printing of the Psalteriolum Cantionum Catholicarum hymnal as the song’s officially verifiable beginnings under the title “Veni, Veni Emmanuel.” More than 100 years later, the Latin hymn would be included in a separate Germanic hymnal called Thesaurus Hymnologicus, where it was discovered by Anglican priest John Mason Neale, who translated it into English. Neale’s original translation reads slightly different from the song’s well-known stanzas, and he tweaked other parts with subsequent hymnal inclusions before landing on the version that is most well known to contemporary audiences. After the text was eventually paired with a popular existing melody (eventually causing that melody to be commonly referred to as “Veni Emmanuel”), the music and lyrics were included in the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern – one of the most popular and enduring English hymnals of all time.
Up to that point, the hymn had only five verses that correlated with the O Antiphons, leaving out two of the seven antiphons it was understood to reference. Germanic hymnodists eventually wrote two more verses for the missing antiphons and these first appeared in print in an 1878 hymnal called Cantiones Sacrae. However, these two verses were not translated into English until 1916, and it took until 1940 for an all-encompassing seven-stanza English translation to be printed in its entirety. Even as recently as 2009, the song’s musicality has been repurposed anew, as U2 cribbed the hymn’s haunting melody line for the song “White as Snow” from their No Line on The Horizon album. All of these iterations have contributed to the lasting success and widespread journey of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” through the folk process from ancient Latin text to popular English hymn to completist Germanic additions to Irish rock repurposing.
For a masterful example of continuing adaptation within the folk tradition, perhaps there is not a more malleable song in the Christmas canon than “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Even from its outset, the song was formed with a variety of folk song credentials inherent in its makeup: Its counting theme is built around the religious Twelvetide celebration of the birth of Jesus. Its gift-giving theme reflects one of the major customary activities of the holiday. In terms of its complicated geographical and cultural history, the song’s first print publication was in England, but its textual beginnings can be traced to France. Yet other countries and regions have similar counting-based, calendar-marking songs, such as Scotland’s “The Yule Days” and France’s “Les Douze Mois.” And finally, it started as a text-only poem and was eventually paired with an existing melody almost 130 years after its lyrics were first published, proving the longevity of the song.
After “The Twelve Days of Christmas” reached peak cultural popularity in the US through classic recordings by artists like Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, and even Alvin & the Chipmunks, the song’s playfully escalating counting structure and intuitive gift-giving pattern made it ripe for further adaption, especially in the form of parody. Comedian Fay McKay was famous for her “Twelve Daze of Christmas” skit that featured her increasing inebriation played for laughs as she sang her way through 12 dry martinis, 11 Bloody Marys, 10 dry Manhattans, etc. The beloved characters of Sesame Street recorded their own version of the song in 1975 that included character-specific gifts like nine pounds of birdseed for Big Bird, six rubber ducks for Ernie, and “one delicious cookie” for Cookie Monster. The Canadian skit show SCTV released a comedy album in 1982 called Great White North that featured actors Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas (as their characters Bob and Doug McKenzie) getting a little more than halfway through a localized iteration that includes two-fours, toques, back-bacon, and a beer that eventually finds itself in the tree. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy recorded “The Redneck Twelve Days of Christmas” in 1996 with such stereotypical gifts as beer, wrestling tickets, dip, Spam, flannel shirts, shotgun shells, and car parts. In all of these examples of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” whether traditional or parody, the folk process is in play every time a songwriter or artist employs transformation and adaptation to rework a familiar song structure to achieve their own new, creative expressions.
Discussions about traditional folk music instrumentation usually conjure up a mental flipbook of sepia-toned rustic images — hard-worked hands gnarled over rough-hewn acoustic instruments, ramshackle percussion that thuds and clanks in primal rhythms, bows and strings wrestling in tandem to tame a wily screech into a melodic howl, or the untaught voices of homegrown folk singing from a place that is more meaningfully personal than it is musically precise. There’s a certain romanticism and nobility ascribed to these stereotypes, oftentimes culled from old Alan Lomax field recordings, scratchy 10-inch shellac records that spin at 78 rpm, or any of the 84 entries from Harry Smith’s famed Anthology of American Folk Music compilation; they’re all less about the exact musical equipment being used and more about the adaptability of the song to any player’s level of musicianship and whatever instrumentation is available at the moment. It’s why “The House of the Rising Sun” is no less a folk song when it’s filtered through the guitar-and-organ rock interplay of The Animals, the bombastic strings and Bond-esque horns of The London Symphony Orchestra, or the 8-bit synthesizer-meets 20-classical-guitars-at-once version by indie rock trio Alt-J than it is in the hands of Woody Guthrie, Josh White, or Bob Dylan.
The same principle applies to the performance of Christmas standards. Songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells” are adaptable enough to carry the exact same weights and meanings whether they are performed by a first-year solo pianist at a school recital, a thrown-together band of neighborhood carolers with a couple acoustic guitars, or Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which melds symphonic orchestration and prog-rock amplification for their multi-metered, mixed genre instrumental medley of both songs. The transcendence of versatility over distinctiveness is why very few folk songs and Christmas standards can claim a definitive version tied to one specific artist or one specific recording.
Song survival via oral transmission is key to folk music. While often embodied by the idea that folk songs are passed from one person to another (and one generation to another) via face-to-face settings, the process also seems to weave songs into a community’s collective consciousness. In terms of Christmas standards, they infuse cultural practices through omnipresent department store music, the yearly glut of holiday-themed television commercials, repeat viewings of classic Christmas films that feature wall-to-wall seasonal soundtracks, and radio stations that change their format to 24/7 holiday music from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.
Even if you’ve never purchased a single Christmas album or piece of festive sheet music in your life, there’s a good chance you know all the words to “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” can hum along perfectly to “Good King Wenceslas,” and can recognize the intro to “White Christmas” long before Bing Crosby even gets out his first lyric. Plus, many songwriters and artists have doubled down on the festive nature of their holiday creations by weaving in instrumental phrases from the well-known “Jingle Bells” melodic motif into their own performances and recordings. Just a few of the examples where this can be heard are the end of Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” the intro of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” the outro of Alabama’s “Christmas In Dixie,” and in both of Bruce Springsteen’s popular Christmas covers of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and “Merry Christmas, Baby.”
In fact, “Jingle Bells” may be the singular song that makes the strongest connections between traditional folk songs and Christmas standards. Not only does it check all of the aforementioned boxes of what defines folk music, but it also carries with it some additional characteristics that are common to traditional songs. For example, while its author is generally agreed to be James Lord Pierpont, the location (either Medford, Massachusetts, or Savannah, Georgia) and year of its writing (some say as early as 1850 and some say as late as 1857) have been the subject of much ethnomusicological debate. Additionally, the purposes for which it was originally written have changed and evolved over time, as “Jingle Bells” was actually first written to celebrate Thanksgiving, and only became associated with Christmas around the turn of the 20th century when it was captured on Edison cylinder as part of a Christmas medley called “Sleigh Ride Party.” Over the years, the song has spawned its own parodies, including the infamous “barking dogs” version from the 1950s and the “Aussie Jingle Bells” version that plays up the geographical nuances of an Australian Christmas taking place during the summer months with lyrics like “Kelpie by my side singing Christmas songs / It’s summertime and I am in my singlet, shorts, and thongs.”
However, one of the most surprising folk song connections attached to “Jingle Bells” may be found in its problematic roots in blackface minstrelsy. In 2017, Boston University professor Kyna Hamill published a research paper called “The Story I Must Tell: ‘Jingle Bells’ in the Minstrel Repertoire” in the academic journal Theatre Survey. In her paper (and subsequent NPR interview), Hamill details how the earliest public performance of “Jingle Bells” that she could find was from a blackface minstrelsy show at Ordway Hall in Boston in September 1857. The performer was a well-known minstrel actor named Johnny Pell who played upon the racial stereotypes of unintelligence and buffoonery that were inherent in most minstrel performances. While “One Horse Open Sleigh” (the original name of “Jingle Bells”) doesn’t have any racial overtones itself, the “laughing all the way” lyric and audience participation follow-up made it ripe minstrelsy fodder for Pell’s blackface performance.
Clearly, there are plenty of popular Christmas standards that have passed the traditional folk song test. Admittedly, some especially commercial ones would never make the cut: There will only be one definitive recording of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” and (thankfully) only one definitive version of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime.” However, there are unquestionably entire sub-categories of Christmas standards that should be brought in from the cold and offered a seat at the traditional folk song table. ’Tis the season, after all.
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