My son, Declan, used to have a wide-ranging and eclectic weekly music show, Against the Arctic, on Melbourne community radio station RRR for many years. In 2007, he asked me to co-host a Christmas special with him and we had so much fun with it we decided to make it an annual event. It was a two-hour show that ran for five years, and, not wanting to repeat ourselves from year to year, we were always on the lookout for things we hadn’t played before.
Until I started actively searching, I hadn’t realised just how much Christmas music was out there. It seems that every artist who’s performed for any length of time has done a Christmas album, or at least a song, at some stage. And every year new pieces are written and new recordings of old standards are released, adding to the gigantic, centuries-old pile of songs, carols, hymns and poems.
It’s the sheer volume of Christmas material, much of it schmaltzy or schlocky, or both, that can sometimes blind us to the incredible variety of riches hidden within that pile, just as the genuine treasure of a beloved present may get lost among the trash and chaos of Christmas Day. Christmas down the ages has thrown up wonderful music and songs of all kinds – sacred and secular, ancient and modern, political and soulful, serious and fun. And in all kinds of styles – pop, classical, folk, gospel, soul, blues, rock ’n’ roll, punk, garage, grunge, dance, hip-hop, reggae, calypso and more.
A reason for this astonishing variety, I suspect, apart from Christianity’s global spread, is that the Christmas we celebrate today is a blend of many traditions, some relatively recent and some going back thousands of years, and all of them giving rise to story and song. Exploring these traditions is like going on an archaeological dig.
Its central story, often buried under tinsel, is the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary in a stable in Bethlehem around 2000 years ago. This event was the first Christmas family gathering – Mary and Joseph with Jesus in the manger, a feeding trough for animals. Like many families today, they had to travel and didn’t have an easy time getting there. Night falling and no room at the inn! Stress leading up to Christmas? It was there from day one.
Historians say that the early Christian authorities sought to make a new religion more palatable to nonbelievers by aligning Jesus’s birthday with pagan winter solstice festivals such as the Germanic Yuletide and the Roman Saturnalia. The Saturnalia ran for a week each year, culminating on December 25. Our traditions of gift giving, feasting, singing, the lighting of candles, the decorating of trees, generosity to the poor, goodwill to all, general indulgence and the loosening of everyday constraints all hark back to these pre-Christian rituals. Conversion by stealth, you might say.
“White Christmas”, the most popular Christmas song ever, doesn’t mention Jesus at all. Irving Berlin, the grand old man of American pop music, frames the song as a longing for home and hearth and idyllic childhood days. Bing Crosby’s version is the most well known, and supposedly the biggest selling song of all time, helped by a big dose of schmaltz, but Darlene Love’s 1963 recording on Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You is the one I play loud every Christmas morning.
Irving wrote a spoken introduction for the song, which Bing didn’t use:
The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day in old L.A.
But it’s December the 24th and I’m longing to be up north
So I can have my very own white Christmas
Darlene takes these lines and puts them in the middle of her version, further emphasising the fact that the narrator can’t be home for Christmas: they’re longing to be there but they’re too far away. This “missing out” is the key to the song’s emotional power, a key that helped me unlock my own Christmas song, “How To Make Gravy”, 25 years ago. Many other songwriters have done the same. Not being there has become a staple holiday theme. As The O’Jays say, “Christmas just ain’t Christmas without the one you love!”
“White Christmas” mentions sleigh bells and snow, invariably bringing to mind Santa Claus, who, to many, is the defining image of Christmas. But that story, too, has layers upon layers, going all the way back to St Nicholas, a bishop from Asia Minor, now Turkey, in the 4th century CE, who was famous for his gift-giving and good deeds. Legends surrounding St Nicholas became popular in Europe during the mediaeval period and hymns were written about him. He supposedly saved a poor man’s three daughters from servitude by secretly depositing bags of money in their house before the father eventually discovered him in the act. He calmed a storm on the sea through his prayers and so became the patron saint of sailors as well as of children.
The Dutch called him Sinterklaas, an abbreviation of Saint Nicholas, and centuries later carried him to America. With more than a little help from an 1823 poem, “A Visit from St Nicholas” (later known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”), published anonymously in a New York newspaper, and now generally attributed to writer and classical professor Clement Clarke Moore, he eventually morphed into the jolly, red-cloaked, flying-with-reindeers figure we know today. St Nicholas got the hymns, Santa got the songs.
Celebrating Christmas in the southern hemisphere adds yet another layer to the festivities, as our summer sits weirdly on top of a holiday derived from winter solstice rituals. Shopping malls and supermarkets pipe carols singing of sleds and snow, warm chestnuts, mistletoe and holly as we shop for the makings of a roast and trinkets for small fir trees. On the day itself many people now forgo the once-traditional roast to eat seafood and salads and drink white wine in the sun. As families feast and fight and love and laugh and tease and sulk and bicker, the talk in some households invariably turns to summer sports and the merits of the Australian side selected for the imminent Boxing Day test.
In 1948, lyricist James Wheeler and composer William James, both of whom worked at the ABC, published Five Australian Christmas Carols, a conscious collaboration intended to remedy the dearth of carols set in Australia. It was a big success. They followed up in 1954 and 1961 with two more sets, bringing the total songlist to 15, some of which have become canonical. “Carol of the Birds”, “The Three Drovers”, “The Silver Stars Are in the Sky” and “Christmas Bush for His Adorning”, among others, which celebrate the Australian summer, landscape and unique wildlife, with lyrics referencing golden weather, black swans, wild dogs, dancing brolgas and chanting currawongs, are now widely popular and enjoyed at such events as Carols by Candlelight.
Animals and birds have long been part of Christmas lore. Most of us are familiar with the partridges, turtledoves, geese and French hens that appear (repetitively!) in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. There’s an Australian version too, with kookaburras, emus, snakes and cockatoos. Ancient folk legends from many countries tell of animals talking at the birth of Jesus, based on the belief that the innocent creatures, as the first to witness the miracle of the nativity, themselves miraculously began to speak on the stroke of midnight, Christmas Eve.
“The Friendly Beasts”, a song that has its origins in the Middle Ages, and possibly even further back, has a series of verses where the animals – the donkey, the cow, the sheep and the dove – take turns talking about their role in the birth of Jesus.
Said the cow, all white and red
“I gave Him my manger for a bed
I gave Him my hay to pillow His head”
Thus said the cow, all white and red
Said the sheep with the curly horn
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm
He wore my coat on Christmas morn”
Thus said the sheep with curly horn
“Come; see the oxen kneel,” writes Thomas Hardy in “The Oxen”, a poem steeped in this tradition. And once again we’re back in the weird, old world of the Saturnalia and similar festivals worldwide, where the established order of things turns topsy-turvy, where creatures assume new shapes and qualities (where reindeers fly!), where misrule reigns and masters serve their slaves.
In stark contrast to the whimsy and innocence of “The Friendly Beasts”, and to the joy and exaltation of most Christmas carols, is the 16th-century hymn “Coventry Carol”, which refers to The Massacre of The Innocents, a story from the Gospel of St Matthew. This is the dark underbelly of the Christmas legend. King Herod, after meeting with the three wise men (the Magi) on their star-guided way to worship the newborn King of the Jews, asks them to report back to him when they have found the child. The wise men visit the holy family in the stable and lay down their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but, warned in a dream to avoid Herod, go home another way.
Herod, furious that he has been outwitted by the Magi and threatened by the possibility of the rise of another king greater than himself, gives orders to his soldiers to kill all male children under two years of age in and around Bethlehem. Meanwhile, Joseph and Mary, also warned in a dream, secretly escape with Jesus to Egypt. The massacre goes ahead amid great mourning and weeping. “Coventry Carol” tells this story to chilling effect as a lullaby with a gorgeous melody.
All this took place a long time ago in a land where the three great monotheistic religions coexist and contend. Bethlehem is now a city under Palestinian authority in the West Bank. Its current inhabitants need permits to cross the Israeli checkpoint into Jerusalem, 10 kilometres to the north. (That’s less than from St Kilda to Northcote, a distance I know well, having lived in Melbourne under lockdown limits, unable to visit my children and grandchildren.) Yet Christianity, Judaism and Islam all share the same father – Abraham – and as such are known as the Abrahamic religions. They are family.
Jesus was Jewish. (So, for that matter, was Irving Berlin. Many of the most well-known Christmas songs were written or co-written, albeit with secular themes, by Jewish composers and lyricists. To “White Christmas” add “Winter Wonderland”, “Santa Baby”, “The Christmas Song”, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, “Silver Bells” and many more.) Jesus (from the Hebrew Jeshua) was steeped in Jewish doctrine and law and, in his preaching, referred to the Torah, directly quoting from it at times. Other passages in the Hebrew bible prophesise his coming. The inscription on his cross, INRI, is an acronym for the Latin words “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. As in birth, so in death.
The Qur’an, Islam’s founding document, believed to be Allah’s words unsullied by scribe or scholar, spoken directly to the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century CE, honours Jesus as a prophet too, and has a whole chapter, Surah Maryam, devoted to Mary, with many striking similarities to the Christian story. Echoing the Gospel of Luke, an angel appears before Mary and announces to her astonishment that she is going to give birth to a divine son even though she has been “touched by no man”. Following on from that come these beautiful lines:
And so she conceived him and withdrew with him to a far-off place. And the throes of childbirth came upon her by the trunk of a date-palm. She cried out, “Would that I had died before this, and been forgotten and out of sight!” But a voice called to her from below, “Grieve not! Your Lord has provided a stream at your feet and, if you shake the trunk of the palm tree towards you, it will let fall fresh ripe-dates upon you. So eat, drink, and calm your mind.”
Deep inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, where Christian tradition holds that Jesus was born, a stone, it is said, marks the place where the date palm tree of Islamic tradition – Mary’s succour and comfort throughout her tribulation – supposedly once stood.
Common ground. More than ever now we need it.
A Christmas song stocking
Darlene and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound take this song from Bing’s cosy fireside and burn it to the ground.
Jumping out of 1936, fresh as tomorrow, Louis and the gang, as always, bring the party!
Johnny Cash has done this song. Burl Ives, too. Charles and Ira Louvin, one of the great American brother duos from the ’50s, reach into the distant past with that high and lonesome sound.
From her great album, Blue. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Enough said.
Beautiful arrangement by Alex Palmer, featuring sackbuts, the precursor of the trombone. New Zealand soprano Madison soars above the horror.
In 1818 in Oberndorf, a small town in present-day Austria, the church organ was damaged by flood leading up to Christmas. Necessity being the mother of invention, “Stille Nacht” was written on guitar at short notice to accompany the choir on Christmas Eve. The parishioners were mostly people who worked on boats on the Salzach River, the source of the flooding. The melody has the sway of a gentle wave. A swayer and a stayer! Gospel singer Robert H. Harris, hugely influential, in particular on Sam Cooke, takes the lead here with the quartet, not long before handing on the baton to Sam.
This may be the sound of heaven.
The heat is on for Caetano’s narrator, on the run from machine guns and separated from the one he loves. Caetano himself, along with his friend Gilberto Gil, was arrested without trial in 1968 under Brazil’s military dictatorship, detained for 57 days, then “invited” to leave the country shortly thereafter. They lived in exile in London for two years before returning home.
The gentle self-mocking banter between David and Bing at the start is pitch perfect. The singing isn’t bad either.
Willie keeps climbing through this 19th-century hymn, all the way to the stars.
Recorded in Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1939. I wonder if Louis Prima was at that party, too. Lord Beginner, born Egbert Moore, moved to England in the late ’40s along with other well-known Calypsonians and became part of the thriving London calypso scene.
A big-hearted song, big enough to hold the contradictions of Christmas, and big enough to criticise and love. Sentimental and razor-sharp at the same time – not easy to do. Nice one, Tim.
A virtuosic rendition of this 19th-century folk song by one of the leading figures of the Irish folk renaissance. Two Irish lads out for a walk on Christmas morning fight off an English press gang. They do more than fight them off – they beat them to a pulp!
A traditional Hebrew prayer that has been set to many different melodies. It’s recited or sung all year round on Friday nights for Shabbat. This well-known melody was composed by Rabbi Israel Goldfarb just over a hundred years ago. The prayer speaks of peace, kings and angels. A perfect fit with Christmas.
Trombonist Willie Colón and singer Héctor Lavoe, New York–based Puerto Ricans, made two hugely popular Christmas albums in 1970 and 1973, Asalto Navideño Vol 1 and Vol 2. The title translates to “Christmas Assault”. Not wrong! It’s impossible to stay still while listening to this record. I’m not much of a dancer, but I like to play it loud while prepping and cooking on Christmas morning.
Although there are strict protocols for reciting or singing the Qur’an, there are many variations in performance according to culture, geography and the individual. In the original Arabic it is never performed with any instrument other than the human voice. Many reciters have huge global followings.
Christmas jail songs could almost be a genre in itself. You could try “Christmas in Jail” by The Youngsters for something less melancholy.
The great songwriting team of Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff, pioneers of the Philly Soul sound, produced and wrote this for the O’Jays in 1970. This team could always make sad songs sound joyous and uplifting.
“Maybe this year love will appear / Deeper than ever before.” Melancholy, hope, longing and beauty from Canada.
Accordion-driven romp. Worth it for the clip alone. They were probably playing Louis Prima before Bob arrived.
No Christmas song list is complete without acknowledging the new year and new beginnings. Written by Frank Loesser, who also wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” (during World War Two), it’s become a standard, recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and many others. But Nancy’s version takes the cake.
Spotify playlist: PK Christmas. Paul Kelly’s double album Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train is out now.
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