Whether it’s in a majestic cathedral,
a school auditorium or a shopping mall, there’s nothing
like a familiar Christmas melody to put a person in
the holiday spirit. It’s amazing how the familiar strains
of “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World” create feelings
of joy, hope and peace.
Why does Christmas music evoke such strong emotions?
Music educators and Bible scholars at Northwestern College
in Saint Paul, Minn., cite childhood memories, the character
of the music, and the histories of the songs themselves
as reasons for Christmas music’s emotional appeal.
“During the Christmas season we look for familiar, comforting
sounds of traditional, timeless music and theology.
We are willing to suspend our need for what is novel,
exciting or cutting-edge,” explains Timothy Sawyer,
director of choral activities. “Christmas carols provide
a familiar, comforting presence to which we can return
year after year. This is perhaps one reason why, since
its composition in 1742, Handel’s “The Messiah” has
remained so popular during the holiday season.”
“People have powerful childhood and family memories
built around the Christmas season, which to a large
extent is defined by its music,” says Dr. Philip Norris,
professor of music. “We simply can’t think of Christmas
without music. Even in secular settings the Christmas
story and its music are part of the aura.”
Dr. Ardel Caneday, professor of Bible understands the
impact of childhood memories. “When I was in high school,
the men’s octet would join the women’s sextet to sing
‘Silent Night’ a cappella. I fondly remember singing
second tenor in the men’s octet. The crisp harmony was
deeply stirring. It was a joy to contribute to the beautiful
sounds of a favorite and cherished Christmas carol.”
From their humble beginnings in the 4th century, Christmas
songs focused on the supernatural aspects of Christmas.
One of the earliest songs was “Jesus refulsit omnium”
(Jesus, light of all the nations) composed by St. Hilary
of Poitiers, a prolific writer of hymns.
St. Francis of Assisi formally introduced Christmas
carols to church services during the 12th century. A
patron of the arts, he inspired composers and poets
to deliver Christmas music. The lighter, joyous Christmas
songs were introduced during the 1400s in Renaissance
Italy. From Italy they passed to France and Germany,
and eventually England where they retained simplicity,
fervor and mirthfulness.
“The musical character of Christmas songs reflects the
season’s themes: mother and child (Mary & Jesus), joy,
hope, peace,” Dr. Norris explains. “The melodies, harmonies
and rhythms created for the songs reflect those themes.”
For example, he explains, “Joy to the World” has a lively
rhythm that begins on and repeats its highest note seven
times. “Every phrase of the music follows the biological,
physical shape of ‘joy’ -- a sudden rising to a high
pitch with a subsiding direction immediately following.”
Dr. Mark Muska, chair of Northwestern’s Bible department,
says Christmas music brings the focus back on the spiritual
meaning. “The music helps people get back to the real
meaning of Christmas,” he says. “Sometimes we get caught
up in the commercialism, but the music helps us focus
on the Lord’s birth.”
“The distinctive and joyful sound of Christmas music
inspires reflection upon the incarnation of God’s Son
and the hope of peace and salvation that He brings,”
adds Dr. Caneday.
The stories of Christmas hymns and carols also contribute
to the season’s musical aura. “One of my favorite Christmas
carols is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘I Heard the
Bells on Christmas Day,’” Dr. Caneday says. “It’s particularly
stirring for me because of its historical setting against
the backdrop of the American Civil War.”
Longfellow’s words reflect grief over the death of his
wife, his bitter opposition to the war, and the sorrow
of his son gravely injured in the war.
The history of “Silent Night” continues to inspire people.
It was written in Bavaria on Christmas Eve 1818 when
the church organ was broken and the town was snowbound.
Church vicar Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics on the spot
then handed them to organist Franz Gruber, who composed
the original melody with guitar accompaniment just in
time for midnight mass.
The origins of Christmas songs reflect history, religions
attitudes and world cultures.
* Handel’s “The Messiah,” originally had nothing to
do with Christmas. Its premiere in Dublin was a benefit
for prisoners jailed for debt. Enough money was raised
to free 142 debtors.
* “O Holy Night” was written by Adolphe Charles Adam,
the French composer best known for his ballet, “Giselle.”
Church authorities that denounced its lack of musical
taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion”
frowned upon the song.
* “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was written in 1849
by Edmund Hamilton Sears who expressed a longing for
peace. It was penned after the Mexican-American War
when skirmishes between settlers and Indians and slavery
supporters and abolitionists were igniting across the
* “O Little Town of Bethlehem” came out of the Civil
War and was written by Phillips Brooks, a Philadelphia
pastor who ministered to Union soldiers. Theories of
the poem’s meaning vary. One theory explains the stillness
in Bethlehem mirrors the stillness in Philadelphia where
a generation of young men had been wiped out. The other
theory is he wrote the text during a Christmas trip
to the Holy Land and was describing Bethlehem.
Northwestern College, Saint Paul, MN, is a nondenominational
Christian college that offers 45 majors in the Bible,
arts, sciences and professional education to over 2,500
traditional and alternative education students. For
more information, log onto www.nwc.edu or call (651)
631-5100 or (800)692-4020.
Courtesy of ARA Content