Monday, 22 December 2014

Not So Silent Night: The History of Christmas Carols

Carol book from 1950s, Snow Golem eats kids later.

Christmas carols can mean the tender tones of choirs of angels singing, or the local punk band screaming Rudolph the Red Nose Cowboy. It's really your choice. I prefer the more traditional ones, despite my lack of personal interest in a supreme being. But I am interested in all things historical, including why we warble carols at this time of year.

I love etymology as much as I love history. The Oxford Dictionary states that carol or carole is a medieval word of French and Anglo-Norman origin. It was believed to mean a dance song or a circle dance accompanied by singing. They were first just hymns sung in a christian church. When the Catholic church first started using hymns in the 300s, the songs were pretty boring. The introduction of rhyme, along with the cultivation of pagan lore created the first carol sometime in the 1100s: “Veni, redemptor gentium," or “Savior of the Nations, Come,” attributed to Milanese Bishop St. Ambrose. But they were sung in Latin, and not the local languages, which was about as exciting as drinking fat free eggnog.

The awesome patron saint of Animals and decent music, St. Francis of Assisi, recognized the unpopularity of Christmas hymns, and set out to change it by transforming the holiday through theatrics, music, and for the first time, carols sung in audiences’ native languages. The abandonment of Latin in the thirteenth century was popularized in nativity scenes and productions across Europe. And there was much rejoicing.

Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 book by a chaplain named John Awdlay, who lists twenty five "caroles of Cristemas", probably sung by groups of wassailers. Wassailing comes from the Old English term "waes hale, meaning "be well". It was a Saxon custom that, at the start of each year, the lord of the manor would shout 'waes hael'. The assembled crowd would reply 'drink and be healthy'.

Carol singers in the mid 1800s still looking for some Christmas beer, I mean cheer.
The tradition was carried on by people going from door to door, bearing good wishes and a wassail bowl of hot, spiced ale. In return people in the houses gave them drink, money and Christmas special foods like mince pies, and they believed they would receive good luck for the year to come. Carols then are really booze songs.
When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped. However, the carols survived as people still sang them in secret. Carols remained mainly unsung until Victorian times, when two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected lots of old Christmas music from villages in England. People revitalized the practice so much that popular books like Dickens' A Christmas Carol with the carolers being scared off by old Scrooge.

Bring on the tunes, the cheer, and the malnourishment of 1860s Christmas. At least they had a tree.
How about the origins of my favorite carols sung today, Silent Night? In 1818 the carol "Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht" was performed in the village church in Oberndorf, Austria at Midnight Mass. It was written by the assistant pastor, Father Joseph Mohr, and the choir director, Franz Xaver Gruber, to be accompanied on the guitar, an usual decision. On each of the six verses, the choir repeated the last two lines in four-part harmony. It was meant to be a nice song for the local folks to sing, but it's popularity grew as folk singers started performing it elsewhere. Too bad no one believed them that they wrote it until proof int eh form of an original surfaced in 1994. Good thing they had day jobs.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Oh Christmas Bush, Oh Christmas Bush: The History of Christmas Trees

Way back when I was small, my father brought home a fresh pine Christmas tree. However, it was small and sort of bushy. My brother Dave decided it needed its own song, so taking a nod from Oh Christmas Tree, it became Christmas Bush. And it was, despite the decorating and the old 50s angel on top.

Similar to the one we had - that dead look was popular.

That began to make me think: Why? When did humans start cutting down trees and putting them up to shed all over in their house? 

Since we figured out how nice they were to have around! Evergreen trees have been associated with seasonal celebrations since ancient times, especially during the winter solstice. People would put boughs, trees and rings of plants that remained green in the winter remind people that spring will return and that once again the land would be lush and abundant. Where our Western traditions originate, the shortest day and longest night of the year falls on December 21 or December 22 and is called the winter solstice. Many ancient peoples believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had become sick and weak. They celebrated the solstice because it meant that at last the sun god would begin to get well. Egyptians, Romans, Druids, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Spaniards and Slovaks are some of the people that used evergreen trees to decorate their homes.

The Christians took over the trees!

In the 7th century a monk named Boniface from Devonshire, went to Germany to convert them to Christianity. Legend has it that he used the triangular shape of the Fir Tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to the pagans. The converted people began to revere the Fir tree as God's Tree, as they had previously revered the Oak. By the 12th century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity. The first documented decorated tree was at Riga in Latvia, in 1510. In the early 16th century, Martin Luther is said to have decorated a small Christmas Tree with candles, to show his children how the stars twinkled through the dark night.

Modern Trees: thank Royalty! 

In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, put up a Christmas tree as he did when he lived at home. They were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Her British subjects - who actually liked her- thought that this was very cool and fashionable and started to do the same.

Fashionable but seriously somber here.

By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the Western world. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling. Canadians don't really care as long as there is nothing living in it. People mostly made their own ornaments, while the German and their descendants use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colours and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree everywhere took hold.

One of the largest public Christmas trees ever was put up last year in Coeur d’Alene Resort in Idaho. It is 162 feet (49.5 m), with the star on top adding another 10 feet (3 m) high. These people are serious about Christmas in Idaho.

Biggest Christmas Tree
But not the fullest.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Yule VS Christmas: Origins

Tis' the season for stuffing your body into your special suit and fancy dress, eating way too much, and howling Silent Night over the church choir. Or at least that's what I recall as a child. The festival of Christmas has changed over the years for me. Now it means family and friends, good food, and making crochet gifts for nieces and nephews. (Watch out guys for that tea cozy you always wanted)

Historyminion wise, I'm going to celebrate by posting a lot on the history of Christmas, traditions, and terrors.

Let's start with Yule versus Christmas. Is it really the same thing?

The Scandinavians in the 1500s getting ready to burn the Yule log and get wasted! Imp included.

Yule goes back, way back, to the 700s. The word is from the Old English geol, geola "Christmas Day, Christmastide," from Old Norse jol (plural), a heathen feast, later taken over by Christianity, as a lot of things were. The priests wanted to con everyone into falling for their new fangled religion by adopting already know traditions. They were assholes like that.

The Old English giuli was the Anglo-Saxons' name for a two-month midwinter season corresponding to Roman December and January, a time of important feasts but not itself a festival. After conversion to Christianity it narrowed to mean "the 12-day feast of the Nativity" (which began Dec. 25), but was replaced by Christmas by the11th century. However, the northern areas of Danish settlement it remained the usual word and festival. Across Scandinavia, great yule logs were burned, and people drank mead around the bonfires listening to minstrel-poets singing ancient legends. It was believed that the yule log had the magical effect of helping the sun to shine more brightly.
Yule was revived in the 19th century by bored writers to mean "the Christmas of Merrie England." probably because it sounds sort of old and cool. Now neo-pagans like followers of Wicca, who I think like to pretend to be spell casters and like to run nude in the woods, celebrate Yule. For them, it's part of the Winter Solstice. 

Very few people today would shout out "Happy Yule Tidings" or "Merry Yule" though.

Christmas, on the other hand, is not as old as Yule, but is up there. It's Middle English for Christemasse, which is from Old English Cristes mæsse, literally, Christ's mass. It was used before 12th century.

Early Roman texts and calenders (about 360 CE) mentions the celebration on December 25 of a Christian liturgical feast of the birth of Jesus. In Eastern Christianity, the birth of Jesus was celebrated, and still is on January 6th at the Epiphany. (When they figured out Jesus was god born as man). The Donatists of North Africa celebrated Christmas may indicate that the feast was established by the time that church was created in 311.

Roman carving of celebrating the God of Light, which the Christian god stole a lot of ideas from. Check out the halo.
And was Jesus actually born in the winter? Most scholars agree that the presence of shepherds and their sheep suggest a spring birth. When church officials settled on December 25 at the end of the third century, they likely wanted the date to coincide with existing pagan festivals honoring Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture) and Mithra (the Persian god of light). Again, the Christians knew how to piggy back on someone elses good time. And because of that religion's ability to change and adapt everything around it like the borg, (geek reference), it beats out Yule. How do we know? I don't hear Have Yourself a Merry Little Yule, do you?

Next Time: How did they celebrate Christmas in Medieval Times? If you're expecting any gifts, you're going to be disappointed.