Article written by Allan Tibbles
In the UK at this time of the year, you will never be far from the sound of music and festive cheer. From Carol singing in the streets and churches, to the pantomimes and the Christmas number 1, music accompanies those from the British Isles during the Christmas celebrations but, where does this tradition come from and what makes a great Christmas song?
In this article I will discuss these questions and the UK’s rich history of traditional and popular music at this important time of year.
The Christmas Carol
The origin of the Carol is actually thousands of years old and has its roots in the traditional pagan religions of Europe. Back then, Carols were written and sung during all four of the seasons, with most of the celebration being focused around the solstice of that season. The word Carol actually means "to sing or to say something happily". Today, only the tradition of singing Carols at Christmas has survived throughout Christian Europe.
Since early Christian times in Britain, people have enjoyed Carols to various degrees: the earliest Carols were almost always written in Latin so not everyone could take part in singing them. The puritans of Oliver Cromwell’s England prohibited both the celebration of Christmas and the singing of Carols, which forced people to sing them in secret. It wasn’t until Victorian times when people like Charles Dickens helped to redefine the image of Christmas as a family celebration and time of reflection, that the Christmas Carol that we know and sing today really became a popular past time at Christmas.
Today in Britain, Carol singing is popular amongst people of all ages, races and faiths and there are even organised Carol singing events like the one in Trafalgar Square that allow selected groups to sing in the capital city and collect on behalf of charities at this special time of year.
One of the “institutions” of Britain during Christmas is the pantomime: it’s believed that the pantomime originates from around the 17th century and is a combination of British and Itailan theatre styles. The "panto" is a play which involves music, topical jokes, slapstick comedy and is loosely based on a fairy tale or nursery story. The plays and stories themselves have very little if nothing to do with Christmas but as they are almost always produced around this time of year, they always attract people of all ages looking to celebrate the festival.
The panto offers an environment in which everything is turned upside down, the leading male is usually played by a female, the panto dame is played by an older man, the panto animal is a human and shouting at the actors “he’s behind you” or “oh no he isn’t” is an absolute must. Combine all of this with humour and music that is for both the young and mature and these are the reasons why I believe the panto will still be a Christmas institution in Britain for generations to come.
In popular music
Since the UK charts started back in 1952 there has always been another reason to celebrate Christmas, the Christmas number one record! The Beatles were the first band to have three consecutive Christmas number one records from 1963-65 and held the record until The Spice Girls repeated it in 1996-99. Queen were the first band to occupy the number one spot on two separate occasions with the same record, the infamously Christmas-themed Bohemian Rhapsody!
The competition between bands to occupy the number one spot for Christmas really began in 1973 when two glam rock bands, Slade and Wizard, penned a Christmas-themed song with the deliberate intention of becoming the Christmas number one for that year. Although Slade eventually won the battle with “Merry Xmas Everybody”, Wizard's “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” is still a favourite Christmas song among Britons even today.
The most famous of the UK Christmas number one records is probably Band Aids, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. Having first been recorded in 1984 in response to the famine of Ethiopia, the song has been re-recorded and released on three separate occasions and is the overall second best all time selling single in the UK as well as having occupied the Christmas number one spot on each occasion!
So this year if you are celebrating your Christmas in Britain, take some time to rock to the sounds of Queen, scream at a panto Dame o sing a Carol in the streets. Whatever your preferred way, Britain’s rich history of music at this special time of year will make sure you’re not lonely this Christmas.