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A boy conducts his friends as they rehearse carols for a Christmas party.
A boy conducts his friends as they rehearse carols for a Christmas party. Fox Photos/Getty Images
Christmas music is a staple of the radio and shops this time of year. In addition to the typical crooning about winter wonderlands, red-nosed reindeer or jingling bells, there are always some interesting covers of carols and hymns.
Originally, the traditional tunes of the Christmas season had nothing to do with the time of year, says Philip Brunelle, the founder and artistic director of the Minneapolis-based choral group VocalEssence.
"In the medieval ages there were Gregorian chants that were sung, yet at the same time all these carols were outside the church," he tells Weekend Edition host Liane Hansen. "Gradually, actually about the time of Reformation, is when we started seeing some changes. Carols were sung rather than singing Gregorian chant."
Brunelle says that carols and hymns are not one and the same. Carols were originally thought of as a circle dance that was accompanied by singing, whereas a hymn had more theological implications and was not made for dancing. These songs have changed a great deal over the years, he says. For example, the hymn "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," originally had nothing at all to do with Christmas, and certainly was not sung with Charles Wesley's familiar lyrics.
"The music by Felix Mendelssohn was composed for male chorus in 1840 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg's printing press," Brunelle says. "After the ceremony was done, people said, 'Oh, that's just a wonderful tune, and it could be something sacred' and Mendelssohn said, 'It will never work with a sacred text.' Well, how wrong he was, because 20 years later, the combination of Wesley's words and his music came together, and we got 'Hark The Herald.'"
The endurance of Christmas carols has to do with the structure of their melodies, Brunelle says.
"You will find that you can remember melodies that are step-wise, or [melodies] that go up and down the scale, like 'The First Noel' or 'Joy to The World,'" he says.
"For every popular Christmas song that we know, there are about a hundred that never made it."