“We wish you a Merry Christmas, We wish you a Merry Christmas, We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!”
Have you heard this song before? It’s an example of a Christmas carol that we often hear on the radio and in homes around America and the world this time of year. Christmas carols are familiar tunes that bring joy and Christmas spirit during the winter. But did you know that many famous Christmas carols have very un-Christmassy beginnings?
Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but at the time they were not Christmas Carols. They were songs that were sung to celebrate the Winter Solstice celebrations. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and usually falls on Dec 22nd in the Northern Hemisphere. The Winter Solstice was commonly celebrated in Europe hundreds of years ago before Christianity spread throughout Europe. These people held religious beliefs that centered on nature and the natural world. They celebrated the Winter Solstice with songs that celebrated the turning of the season and the longer, brighter days ahead.
When Christianity spread throughout Europe, these carols began to change and became a mix of old songs with new Christian themes. Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus around the same timing as the Winter Solstice, so over time the winter celebrations in Europe came to celebrate both. Eventually old pagan carols were combined with new song lyrics celebrating the birth of Jesus.
The tradition of singing songs to celebrate this time of year eventually became part of the winter church services celebrated by Christians. In the year 129, a Roman Bishop said that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another famous early Christmas song written for the Greek Orthodox Church in 760 was also sung at a Christmas service. Soon after, many composers all over Europe started to write “Christmas Carols.”
At first, these new Christmas songs were not very popular, as they were all written and sung in Latin. Latin was the language of the Romans and was used in church services, but it was a language that most regular people throughout Europe could not understand. During the Middle Ages, in the 1200s, Romans had been pushed back from their positions of power throughout Europe and common people became less interested in Roman traditions. Common European people stopped celebrating Christmas in church altogether and the tradition of singing songs to celebrate Christmas started to die out.
This changed in 1223, when St. Francis of Assisi, a famous Italian Catholic preacher, started something new in Italy called a “Nativity Play”. The play was performed in church at Christmas time and the people in the play sang songs or “canticles” that told the story of the birth of Jesus. The choruses of these new carols were sung in Latin, but St. Francis thought that the songs should be sung in the language that the people watching the play could understand and join in, so the songs’ versus were translated into a variety of European languages. The new carols became popular and spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
The earliest carol like this was written in 1410. It was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Unfortunately, only a small part of the song still exists. Traveling singers during the Middle Ages, or “Minstrels”, sang these carols as they traveled from town to town for money. This helped the songs to become common and popular all throughout Europe.
Churches eventually started to hire official carol singers called “Waits” that worked for the church and spread Christian messages by singing these songs in public. “Waits” were bands of singers led by important local political leaders. They would go throughout town singing the songs around Christmas time and collecting money for the church. The groups were called “Waits” because they only sang on Christmas Eve, which was sometimes known as “watchnight” or “waitnight” back then. The name reflected that the shepherds in the story of Jesus were watching their sheep at night when angels appeared to them. Watchnight or Waitnight was considered to be when Christmas celebrations would begin in Europe.
In England, the popularity of Christianity grew from the Middle Ages in the 1200s to the Victorian period in the 1800s. For over 600 years, English people participated in church services and set up orchestras and choirs. People enjoyed the music of church services and particularly liked singing Christmas songs, so carols grew in popularity throughout this time. New carol services were created in Church and became popular at Christmas. So did the custom of singing carols in the streets to spread the message of Christmas and collect money for the church.
Some of the carols that were written during this time period were songs that were made out of traditional English folk songs with Christmas lyrics added to them.
In 1880, Edward White Benson, who was a Bishop in the town of Truro in England, noticed that people were not coming to church as much as he felt they should. In particular, at Christmas, people in Truro liked to celebrate on Christmas eve, but they didn’t come to church. Instead they would gather in pubs and drink alcohol and dance and sing. Bishop Benson, decided to try to lure everyone out of the pub and into church for a new Christmas service.
Truro didn’t have a cathedral, but instead they just held church services in a large shed. Bishop Benson had to really think about how he could make a church service held there interesting enough to get the townspeople to attend. Bishop Benson and his wife and children all liked to write. In fact, Bishop Benson is thought to have written the longest diary that was ever written at the time!
Because of his desire to draw people into church and his love of writing, Bishop Benson and his family decided to write some of their own songs celebrating Christmas. One of the reasons that people loved going to the pubs was because they would sing together there. They would sing folk songs, or traditional songs passed down from one generation to the next. And they would also do folk dances. In fact, this is what the world “carol” meant at the time. It meant “to dance in a circle.
Bishop Benson and his family wrote some Christmas songs to be performed in church. Because some of the songs are combinations of old folk tunes and Christmas traditions or religious images, some Christmas carols can seem kind of strange. For example, have you ever heard the song, “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing”? The song doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think of the Christmas story. Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, is a landlocked area. This means there is no sea there on which ships could sail. Some versions of the song involve Jesus on Christmas day in the morning. But other versions involve three pretty girls on New Year’s Day. It is likely that this song was originally a folk tune sung at pubs in England.
The new version of Christmas church services became very popular. People loved to come into church to be part of the singing and celebrating. And the tradition of singing Christmas carols in church began to spread throughout the country. And Bishop Benson eventually became the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is the highest church position in the Church of England.
Let’s take a look at some specific Christmas carols and their history.
The first is “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”
In the 18th and 19th centuries, other people started to collect these folk songs and turn them into new songs. Over time the songs were edited and changed until they became some of the traditional Christmas songs we all know and love today. For example, the co-founder of Methodism, Charles Wesley, wrote a carol that began: Hark how all the welkin rings, Glory to the King of Kings, Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” He put these lyrics to a Mendelsson tune and that is how the carol was sung for over 20 year. Until another preacher changed the first line to Hark, the herald angels sing, Glory to the new-born King! This is the version most people know today. The original song was not religious, but it slowly became a song celebrating the Christian story of Jesus’s birth.
Another famous Christmas carol is “Good King Wenceslas.”
While the song sings about a real person, his name was not actually Wenceslas but Vaclav and he was the Duke of Bohemia in the 10th Century. Vaclav had a difficult childhood. His dad died when he was young and he was brought up by his mom and a grandma. But the two women fought about what his religion should be. When he grew to be an adult, Vaclav chose to be Christian. He started doing good for others and in particular, he would give to the poor. But he would do this secretly at night by leaving things they needed on their doorsteps. He was particularly interested in giving to widows, orphans and people with disabilities. After Vaclav died, he was declared a saint and king by Otto the Great. The song followed 500 years later when an Englishman named John Mason Neale heard a tune he liked and put together the lyrics to the song we now know today.
“Jingle Bells,” is another Christmas carol that did not have a Christmassy start. Jingle Bells, which was written in America, was actually originally written about Thanksgiving.
In modern times, Christmas carols are popular throughout the world. There are various forms of Christmas songs, including rock tunes and dance songs. And almost every famous musician puts out an album of Christmas songs, putting their own flare on traditional tunes that everyone knows.
People in England and other countries still enjoy the tradition of carolling. In modern times, this tradition sees groups of people go door to door to sing for neighbours and spread Christmas cheer. Some carolers also collect money for the poor.
And the tradition of a carol service or nativity play in church is still quite popular. Many churches around the world hold a special Christmas service in which the story of Jesus’s birth is re-enacted and the church-goers sing Christmas carols together. If you have never been to one of these services, it is something to try one day. Singing together in a group can be very fun and you will be part of history watching the service and knowing it’s traditional roots.
What are some of your favourite Christmas carols? Have you ever thought about where these songs came from? With an adult’s help, you can research online about the origins of your favourite songs. Perhaps the song you look at had a different beginning than you realized. Some Christmas songs are tunes that are written by very famous composers with new lyrics to go with them.
We hope you enjoy getting into the holiday spirit this December with good music, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza or a different holiday depending on where you live and your background.
Imagine yourself sitting around a large bonfire. The year is 1621 and you have spent the last year travelling from Europe to America on a boat. The journey was very hard. When you finally arrived in the “new world” you faced a very hard winter. You and your family lived on the boat through the winter, together with other passengers. It was extremely cold and there was not much to eat. But all of that has changed. As you sit waiting, you see that people are cooking up a huge feast. You smell the cooking meat and vegetables. it makes your mouth water. The cooks include people from Europe that you were on the boat with, and Native Americans who have come to celebrate with you. It is the first Thanksgiving celebration in America, and you are ready to eat!
Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday in the United States and other countries. But how did this holiday begin? Where did it start and why?
The story starts in 1620 when a small ship named the “Mayflower” left from England. On board were 102 passengers. They were all people from different religions that were feeling unwelcome in Europe. They wanted to leave to find a new home where they could practice their religion freely. There were also people onboard who were excited about the idea of buying land, which they couldn’t afford in Europe. They hoped to find a new life and become wealthy in the New World.
The Mayflower made a long and difficult journey across the Atlantic Ocean that lasted 66 days! Eventually, they landed at Cape Cod. This was much further north than where they were hoping to land, which was at the mouth of the Hudson River. One month later, the Mayflower travelled to Massachusetts Bay and the travellers disembarked, or arrived and came ashore. They decided to settle, or make a home, in the area and they began building a village, which is now called Plymouth.
The people who started building the settlement were called “pilgrims”. Pilgrim means a traveller or settler in a new land. The pilgrims in Plymouth did not have time to build houses to live in before the first winter came. The winter was very cold and harsh, so most of the pilgrims remained on the Mayflower ship for the winter. They were hungry and cold living on the ship. Many people developed scurvy, which happens when you don’t eat enough fruits or vegetables. Many also caught diseases that spread easily amongst the crowded living conditions.
By the end of the winter, only half of the Mayflower’s 102 original passengers were still alive.That spring, in March 1621, the people who were still alive moved off the boat and onto shore to start building their homes. While they were settling on shore, an Abenaki Native American came and greeted them in English. Everyone was shocked to see that he was friendly and that he spoke English.
A few days later, he returned with another Native American man named Squanto. Years before Squanto had been kidnapped by Englishmen and brought to England. But he later returned to America and could now speak English. Squanto became friends with the pilgrims and could see that they needed help. The small group of 50 or so people were all weak and starving and many of them were ill. Squanto felt bad for them so he taught the pilgrims how to grow corn, how to fish in the rivers and how to extract sap from maple trees.
Squanto also helped the pilgrim settlers to form an alliance with a local Native tribe, the Wampanoag. An alliance is a bond or union between two groups that pledge to support each other.
Later that year, in the fall of 1621, the pilgrims’s first corn harvest was successful. They had an abundance of corn and were able to eat. The Governor of the group, William Bradford, organized a feast to celebrate the harvest. He invited all the pilgrims in the community and their Native American allies, including the Wampanoag chief Massasoit. The feast lasted for three days. While no one wrote down exactly what they ate, we do know that it was an amazing feast for the time, and likely included chicken, deer, corn, lobster, seal, shellfish, and possibly turkey.
This fest is now remembered as America’s “first Thanksgiving”. The pilgrim’s likely didn’t call it that, as they would not have known that this feast would turn into a holiday. They also played games and had fun during the three days with their guests. They considered this celebration a way to give thanks to God and nature for the harvest and alliance with the Wampanoag people.
The dishes that the pilgrims prepared were likely made using traditional Native American spices and cooking methods. The pilgrims did not have an oven and the sugar supply on the Mayflower had run out by the fall of 1621, so the meal did not include pies, cakes or desserts. But the people were happy to have a harvest meal and party and were happy that their nutrition and health had improved compared to last year — and mostly that they were still alive. That is a lot to be thankful for!
The pilgrims held their second Thanksgiving celebration in the fall of 1623. In the two years between, there had been a long drought. A drought is a long period of time in which it doesn’t rain so everything dries up or doesn’t grow. Because of the drought, there had been no harvest in the fall of 1622 and people were very hungry. In 1623, the farming had been good again and they all celebrated as they had before. The practice of fasting, or not eating for a period of time, followed by having a large thanksgiving celebration started to become common practice in other New England settlements outside of Plymouth as well.
Later, during the American Revolution, the government designated a couple of days of thanksgiving a year. In 1789, George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation.In his speech, he asked Americans to show that they are grateful for the happy ending to the war of independence that Americans had just won and the new constitution, or written framework for the country’s rules, structure and order. Other presidents after George Washington also designated a couple of days of thanksgiving to remember these events.
In 1817, New York became the first state to have an official Thanksgiving holiday. After that, other states started adopting their own Thanksgiving holiday, with each one being celebrated on a different day. However, the tradition hadn’t spread to the south, and most southern states hadn’t heard of Thanksgiving holiday for a long time.
One woman decided that she wanted to change this. She wanted to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Her name was Sarah Josepha Hale. She was a writer and wrote many articles and books and even wrote the song “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. Sara started a campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday and she worked on this for 36 years! A campaign is a planned effort to make something happen or change. She published articles in newspapers and sent letters to politicians. Eventually her efforts paid off, when Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. He scheduled it to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November. Sara was then known ever after as the “Mother of Thanksgiving.”
Thanksgiving was celebrated annually, or once a year, on this day until 1939. President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week in order to help stores make more money during the Great Depression. However, people didn’t like the change, and so he ultimately moved it back to the original date in 1941.
Although the original Thanksgiving celebrations were to celebrate the end of the American war of independence and the new constitution, modern American Thanksgiving is quite different. Now the celebrations center on cooking a turkey and sharing a large meal with family and friends.
While turkeys are the main dish at most American households for Thanksgiving, it may not have actually been on the menu for the pilgrims’ first thanksgiving feast in 1621. Today, more than 90% of Americans eat turkey on Thanksgiving. And there are many different ways that people prepare the bird. Most like to cook it in the oven. But some people deep-fry it or smoke it, or find a variety of other ways to make the turkey dish new and interesting.
Other traditional food that Americans eat at this holiday include stuffing or dressing, mashed potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. These are all foods that are “in season” at that time of year. “In season” means that the fruits and vegetables used are ready to be harvested at that time.
Another common tradition at Thanksgiving is volunteering. Many Americans spend Thanksgiving Day doing volunteer activities in their communities. These activities include holding food drives to collect food for the poor or hosting free dinners for people who are struggling.
Parades have also become an important part of the Thanksgiving holiday in cities and towns throughout the United States. One of the largest and most famous is the Macy’s department store parade in New York City. This parade started in 1924 and was intended to give businesses a chance to celebrate the holiday and advertise their store at the same time. Today, many Americans tune in on TV to watch the Macy’s parade at Thanksgiving. The parade follows a 2 ½ mile route and features marching bands, performers, floats and giant balloons.
Starting in the 1950s, the president of the United States has a transition of “pardoning” one or two Thanksgiving turkeys each year. This means that those 1 or 2 birds don’t get killed to be eaten, but instead get to go back to living on a farm for the rest of their lives.
Even though Thanksgiving is a modern American tradition, there are similar annual celebrations of harvest that take place all over the world and throughout history. In ancient times, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans all held large feasts to say thank you to their gods after the fall harvest. Thanksgiving also has a lot in common with the ancient Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. And Native Americans have a long tradition of celebrating fall harvest with feasts and parties. These traditions are older than the American thanksgiving in 1621, so may have had an influence on the idea to hold a feast.
Does your family celebrate Thanksgiving? If so, what are some of your family’s traditions? When you eat your holiday meal this year, think about the first American thanksgiving at Plymouth. How do you think that would have been different? What are some of the things that you are thankful for this year? However you plan to celebrate, we at Bedtime History wish you a very happy Thanksgiving!