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Where Did That Christmas Song Come From?

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Choir boys sing outdoors in the snow in front of a Nativity display.
Penasco, New Mexico. The choir of the Catholic church singing Christmas hymns. These young singers are performing in the region where Juan B. Rael collected songs. Photo by John Collier Jr., 1943. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

At this time of year the reference staff of the American Folklife Center staff are often asked about the origins of Christmas carols. Here are a few examples of songs with interesting histories.

Some of the oldest Christmas songs came from folk plays that were popular in the Middle Ages. The Juan B. Rael Collection of Spanish language songs collected in New Mexico and Colorado in 1940, preserves some of the oldest Christmas songs in the United States. The Christmas play, El Segundo Coloquio de los Pastores, which is the source of several songs recorded in the collection, dates to the Middle Ages and tells the story of the shepherds who followed a star to find the child in the manger.  It is not clear how much it may have changed over time to become the songs Rael collected, but because the settlement in this region was somewhat isolated –and especially so after Mexican Independence– it is thought that the people passed on their traditions much as they learned them from one generation to the next.  So listen to this recording of “Hermanos Pastores” (Brother Shepherds), sung by Adolfo Chávez and Julián Lobato, to hear a song with roots in old Spanish tradition. (Learn more in the essay in the collection by Enrique R. Lamadrid, “Hispano Folk Theater in New Mexico,” also in Spanish.)

A color drawing for a stained glass window showing Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus with a shepherd standing under a star looking in from behind them.
[Design drawing for stained glass window for St. Pelus Church in Portland, Maine, with text “She Laid Him in a Manger”], J. & R. Lamb Studios, designer. Made between 1857 and 1999. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
There are also English language Christmas plays from the 15th and 16th centuries and “The Cherry Tree Carol” is a song derived from one of these. The song tells of Joseph’s discovery that his wife is going to have a child, but he doubts that the child is his. Mary asks him to pick her some cherries from a tree and he flies into a rage. “Let the father of your child pick pick them,” he tells her. Then Jesus speaks from the womb asking his heavenly Father for the cherries and the cherry tree bows down so that Mary can reach them. Here is a field recording of the carol sung and played on the fiddle by Jilson Setters, with a spoken introduction by Jean Thomas. Thomas calls it by alternate names, “Joseph and Mary” or “The Sixth of January.” It was recorded by John Lomax in Ashland, Kentucky in 1937.

Versions of the story can be found in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Gospel of James, apocryphal texts of unknown origins not included in the Bible. In both it is a palm tree that bows down for Mary. In a recent blog post, “The Origins of the Cherry Tree Carol” in Bible History Daily, Mary Joan Winn Leith suggests that the song might have traveled to Europe with nativity plays from Syria at the time of the crusades.

Often stories arise about the age of Christmas songs because we want them to be ancient. These stories become part of the folklore about the song. An example is “Twelve Days of Christmas,” which has a few stories attempting to explain it. Finding early versions of the song can be tricky. There are several versions and the 18th and 19th century written versions are sometimes described as Christmas songs and sometimes as examples of a game. A Scottish song, “The Yule Days,” in which the King is said to give his lady a series of astonishing gifts on each of the twelve days of Yule, can be found in Robert Chambers’s Popular Rhymes of Scotland (first printed in 1870, see pp. 42-43). Though Chambers makes no claims of the song’s antiquity, some think that it may be related to older Scottish Christmas songs and hymns. So it is possible that our version of “Twelve Days of Christmas” has a long pedigree, but the early counting songs it could be related to do not closely resemble the song we sing today.

The version of “Twelve Days of Christmas” as it is sung in the United States was published in a British collection, Songs of the Nativity; Being Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, by William Henry Husk in 1868 (pp. 181-185). In his introduction to the song he explains that it was used in the game of forfeits and that  “This piece is now printed for the first time in a collection of carols” (p. 180).

Three verses with decorative scroll work.
The first three verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” detail from Songs from the Nativity by William Henry Husk, 1868, page 181.

The game of forfeits Husk refers to was a popular party game of the late 18th through the 19th centuries. Forfeits had many variations. With songs such as “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the players would sit in a circle and someone would begin with the first verse, making up an item for the first day. Then subsequent players would have to add a new item to the verse beginning with “On the X day of Christmas my true love gave to me…” and then recite all the verses that went before in the order that they were sung. Anyone who makes a mistake will have to play a forfeit at the end of the game. The penalty might be as simple as singing a song for the group or kissing someone present, but it might also be a riddle, such as “kiss a book inside and outside without opening it.” The answer to that one is to kiss the cover of the book inside and outside of a room or the house. (Last year, Is it ‘Four Calling Birds’ or ‘Four Colly Birds’? A ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ Debatethat includes an interesting news clipping of “An Old Christmas Rhyme” published in 1869 that begins with “A bough from a juniper tree.”)

The lyrics of two verses of "Luther's Cradle Song," or Away in a Manger with a note saying that it was composed by Martin Luther for his children and that it is still sung in Germany.
“Luther’s Cradle Song” or “Away in a Manger,” as it was printed in The Congregationalist (Boston, Massachusetts, Wednesday, January 04, 1882; pg. 6; Issue 1).

There has been at least one academic article attempting to explain the symbolism of the items in the modern “Twelve Days of Christmas,” as well as a persistent piece of anonymous folklore that claims that the items were a secret code from one era or another when Christians were persecuted. But the items we have in the song of today belong to one instance of a song with many versions and a game with many players that was written down. Many items found in the descriptions of the song used for the game are animals of the hunt, such as deer, hares, boars, and the partridge, as well as some domestic animals. These are found on Christmas feast tables of the era and so naturally were items players of the game might think of as their turn came along.

“Away in a Manger” is another song that is said to be very old. It appeared in United States newspapers in the late 19th Century as “Luther’s Cradle Song,” with a note saying that it was a song that Martin Luther sang to his children that was still popular in Germany. Of course, people believed what they read in newspapers and so this story has persisted, and the song, with the note that it was written by Martin Luther, has found its way into hymnals and books of carols. There are several variations  of the song with two or three verses. Those that can be dated are from the 19th century. Although it is said to be German, all the early versions known are in English and were found in the United States. So let’s “hear Away in a Manger” sung by  Clarice Garland, Collected by Mary Elizabeth Barnicle in Pineland, Kentucky in 1938. This charming and familiar song seems to be a folksong, probably from the 19th century, and a truly American Christmas carol. To me, that is a better story.

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