In my Advent Hymns and Carols post, I suggested that one way to keep Advent is to save up the Christmas carols (as much as possible) until Christmastide. But, I do understand why someone would want to start listening to Christmas carols right after Halloween. I sympathize with all the Christmas music over-eagerness. It’s because Christmas music is made to last and it’s made to be shared. It’s because in modern America, Christmas music is really the only folk music tradition that we still treasure on a large scale. And that is our loss.
Folk music is music that is passed down from generation to generation, music that is shared and interpreted, while still keeping a recognizable integrity. At Christmastime, instead of constant novelty in music, we delight in the familiarity of the old — “Silent Night,” “Carol of the Bells,” “Joy to the World,” “White Christmas.” We enjoy hearing musicians interpret a song within a tradition, within a conversation — it’s just “new enough.” At Christmas, we share music with those who are completely different than us. And we actually still have a practice of singing those songs together: the beautiful tradition of caroling.
Our Christmas music tradition is a glimpse of the musical culture that used to exist all the year round. Because we have mostly lost this musical culture, in exchange for constant new music made to be consumed and then discarded, we’ve also lost a way of being in community.
While writing this post, I was thinking of Haley Stewart’s (of Carrots for Michaelmas) post on Halloween where she makes the excellent point that “Halloween is the only night we will meet in a spirit of festivity. It’s our ONLY communal holiday here in the US.” I think it’s the same with Christmas music — it’s really our only communal music. It’s really the only time we experience music in the way that it had been experienced till modern times — as something to keep and to share and to pass down.
When I think of musical culture and folk songs, I think of one of my favorite quotes from The Joyous Book of Singing Games (1914):
“They have stood the test, they live in their own right and the need of childhood. they live because the appeal of the old games is to something deep down and constant in the very fibre and fabric of child-being. They are of the earth, and the wind, and the home, and the heather, and all the gracious commonplaces of human life and circumstance. “For Heaven’s sake,” says Whitman, “Give us songs that do not sound ridiculous in the open air.”
This Christmas, as we sing carols worthy of the open air, perhaps we can also purpose to learn and keep traditional music — hymns and folks songs — in the new year. We moderns are starved for real festivity, hungry for tradition, yearning to be “in tune with the world” (in the words of Josef Pieper). Learning and keeping hymns and folk songs alive — and especially singing them together in community — is a direct and literal way to be “in tune with the world” and consequently, with one another.
And, while we may want to still restrain ourselves from blasting “O Come All Ye Faithful,” in our houses during Advent, when we hear Christmas carols played and when we participate in Christmas caroling (though we know it really should be scheduled for the Twelve Days!), we can delight to participate in a shared musical culture.
*And, besides the Advent and Christmas hymns that we’re posting here on this site, I’d recommend the songbook in the featured image. Ruth Crawford Seeger, (who wrote American Folk Songs for Children,) compiled this beautiful songbook: American Folk Songs for Christmas. And, it’s the basis for the modern folk-singer Elizabeth Mitchell’s lovely album: The Sounding Joy.