Friday, December 28, 2012

We Wish You a Merry Christmas

... and other carols they sang around the piano.

It started with one little plot point and escalated from there. I need my characters to sing carols around the piano. It's a moment of detente between the Union soldiers and the southern family they have moved in with for the winter.

So, what Christmas songs were they singing in the winter of 1862?

Not "Away in a Manger". The words to that carol were published in Philadelphia, 1885. The melodies were older. One version was lifted from Waltz #4,  Op. 325 by Johann Strauss Jr., composed 19 years earlier. Another was based on the old English tune "Sweet Afton." (I have a personal story about that tune. It'll be in the comments.)

Many carols borrowed their music from older pieces. "What Child is This" uses the melody from "Greensleeves". "Deck the Halls" is based on a Welsh song - only the Fa la la la la's remained the same. "Joy to the World" is believed to have been adapted from Handel. The music we sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" to, was originally composed to commemorate the anniversary of the Guggenheim Press in 1840. The carol's lyrics are older, but the original music wasn't nearly as catchy.

"We Three Kings" and "One Horse Open Sleigh" (better known as "Jingle Bells") were composed in 1857. I'm safe with those ones. The English lyrics to "Deck the Halls" were published in 1862, as was the carol "Angels We Have Heard on High." If my story took place on the eastern seaboard, I wouldn't have any qualms about including them. Sheet music was as hot in the 1860's as iTunes are now. However, I'm not sure when the new music, hot off the press, would make it to Tennessee - especially with a war on.

One thing I don't have to worry about is whether or not my family celebrates Christmas. There might be some Calvinists or other Puritanical types among the Yankees who wouldn't observe the holiday, but most of the southern states had already made Christmas an statutory holiday.

My heroine's parents are German immigrants. She would have grown up decorating a tree and putting presents under it. "O Tannenbaum" will definitely be on the play list, as will "Silent Night", which her parents would have known as "Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht".

Composed in Austria in 1818, by 1859, Silent Night had been translated into English. Perhaps the most widely known Christmas carol, it has been translated into 140 languages. This is one of the reasons it was sung during the Christmas Truce of 1914. It was one carol that the German, French and English soldiers all knew.

"The First Nowell", "Joy to the World", "O Come All Ye Faithful" and even "The Twelve Days of Christmas" all predate the nineteenth century and would have been well known. My favorite carol is also one of the oldest. Dating back to the fifteenth century, and still being sung today, I conclude with...

We wish you a Merry Christmas
We wish you a Merry Christmas
We wish you a Merry Christmas
And a Happy New Year

Alison Bruce is the author of UNDER A TEXAS STAR and DEADLY LEGACY. She lives in Guelph, Ontario with her two children and a pet rat. When she isn't writing fiction, she's usually writing something else.


Caroline Clemmons said...

Alison, your post was interesting. I love "Greensleeves" and "What Child Is This," as well as the other carols you mentioned. Research can be fun, can't it?

Ellen O'Connell said...

That's truly great and interesting information. I love the old carols. It used to be if I tuned in on the radio on Christmas Eve, they'd play them steadily then switch to more modern Christmas songs for Christmas Day, but these last years they hardly seem to play the songs I love. My guess is even for Christmas they're avoiding the religious songs. How insane is that?

Lyn Horner said...

Great post, Alison! I, too, love Greensleeves. Once, long ago, I heard/read that it's the oldest piece of music in the English language. Not sure if that's true, but it's hauntingly beautiful. I also love the lyrics to What Child is This. Thanks for sharing the interesting info!

Ciara Gold said...

Thanks for a great post. Made me want to sing. I took 4 periods of choir my senior year and I remember Christmas being one of my favorite times of the year for all the music we'd learn. Thanks for the history lesson and kudos for another inspiring post.

Jacquie Rogers said...

What? No Rudolf??? :faint: Actually, I'm always surprised about how our "forever" Christmas traditions are mostly post-WWII, so I guess it's not surprising that the Christmas carols would be more modern than we think, as well. My favorite is Carol of the Bells, but it's pretty new, at least to us. Wikipedia says it's a traditional Ukrainian song. "It was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its concert tour of Europe and the Americas, where it premiered in the United States on October 5, 1921 at Carnegie Hall.[2] A copyrighted English text was created by Peter Wilhousky in the 1930s"