My specialized knowledge of Christmas music came about because I am Jewish. In 1980, my first year on the air at WDST in Woodstock, the management asked for a volunteer to run the Christmas eve airshift. Nobody else wanted to do it; they all had places to be on Christmas eve. I didn’t care, so I volunteered.

When I do things, though, I like to do them right. So, with several weeks’ notice, I set about putting together a collection of good Christmas music. Since my own tastes are very eclectic, I decided that the widest variety of music I could play would make for the most fun. And anyway, who would be listening to the radio on Christmas eve?

So, I searched my memory for outstanding examples of Christmas music. I’ve always loved the gorgeous melody and irregular phrases of “Lo How a Rose” by the great early baroque composer Michael Praetorius, so that went in. “Silent Night,” of course, is a gorgeous inspiration, the only surviving composition of Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863). But I had to find a non-corny performance of it. One of my favorite Christmas song recordings ever is a version of “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” retitled “Holy Babe,” sung by a group of convicts at Cumins State Farm, Arkansas, in 1942, one of Alan Lomax’s field recordings. It’s still been issued, as far as I know, only on a Library of Congress LP called “Negro Religious Songs and Services,” but I had a copy. (Because it runs so long, the original recording was on two 78 rpm disc sides, and that division was preserved on the LP dubbing. But someone at the station copied it onto an open reel tape for me and eliminated the break between sides, and I used that for the next decade.)

When the evening arrived, I went on the air at 7 p.m., prepared to go until midnight with the material I had on hand. But I also took requests from listeners, and as long as I thought they were decent enough music, I played them also.

It turned out, to my surprise, that quite a few people were listening, decorating their trees, wrapping presents, and doing other typical Christmas Eve activities. While a few callers didn’t like going from Gregorian chant to Ella Fitzgerald, most people enjoyed the program. I wound up doing a Christmas Eve program every year during my eleven years on WDST. I didn’t always manage to make time for my favorite Christmas work, the “Midnight Mass” of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (based on old French carols). But I played it most years, and I played “Holy Babe” every one of those eleven years. Sometimes people even called to make sure I would have it on before they had to go to sleep. I continued to take requests, but there were some things I would not play. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” was one of them.

It was during those years that I became acutely aware of how little many “Christmas” songs have to do with Christmas. And fewer still are “Christmas carols,” a term that sometimes gets applied even to such non-Christmas winter songs as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Jingle Bell Rock.”

A carol is a “joyful religious song celebrating the birth of Christ,” according to “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is not by any stretch of the imagination a Christmas carol. It is, in its oblique way, a Christmas song, since in the U.S. we have come to accept the whole mythology of Santa Claus and his sled drawn by reindeer (presumably the wildlife normally found closest to the North Pole capable of pulling anything heavy). That image doesn’t fly in most other countries, but I’m not trying to become a cultural dictator so I’ll accept Christmas any way we want it here in the U.S.

Still, there are many, many songs typically played at Christmas time which have nothing to do with Christmas in any way. Here are some of what I call Winter Songs which have no Christmas relevance at all:

Jingle Bells
Sleigh Ride
Let It Snow!
Winter Wonderland
Frosty the Snowman

All of these appear (one of them twice) on the latest edition of an Ella Fitzgerald Christmas compilation, “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.” There is no singer I esteem more than Ella Fitzgerald. But she either she didn’t know the difference between Christmas carols and winter songs or she didn’t care.

One Response to “Christmas Carols vs. Winter Songs”

  1. Geraldine Says:

    Nicely done! I found an online recording of “Lo How a Rise”… beautiful, I’d never heard it.