Sat | Mar 24, 2018

Once-a-year songs thrill at Christmas

Published:Sunday | December 20, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Mariah Carey
Harry Belafonte
Luther Vandross
Boris Gardiner

Year after year, music has infiltrated Christmas celebrations all over the world. They appear in various styles and languages with unique characteristics that are found nowhere else in music. Unlike other types or genres of music, which are played all year round, music associated with Christmas, or what some call Christmas music, is played only at Christmas. This allows for the preservation of the novelty of Christmas songs, resulting in them sounding as fresh as ever each time they are played or sung. Christmas carols and church hymns were perhaps the earliest types of songs done in praise, commemorating the coming of Christ on Earth. On any given Christmas Sunday morning, which almost invariably falls on the Sunday closest to December 25, churchgoers can be heard belting out the lyrics of one of the earliest and more popular Christmas hymns in many of Kingston's Christian churches. The hymn alluded to - Oh Come All Ye Faithful contained lyrics that were particularly relevant to the festive season:

"Oh come all ye faithful,

joyful and triumphant,

oh come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem.

Come and behold Him,

born the King of angels.

Oh come let us adore him,

Christ, the Lord."

It was originally written in latin, and released in 1751 under the title, Adeste Fideles, but was later sung in English for the first time in 1841 after Reverend Frederick Oakley did a translation.

Alongside Christmas hymns, there appeared Christmas carols and novelty songs. The latter was designed primarily for children and were mainly musical parodies that produced comic effect. All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth, first done in 1948, was one such song. There were others like, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus in 1952, by Jimmy Boyd; Jingle Bells in 1955 by Dan Charles; The Chipmunk Song in 1958 by Alvin and the Chipmunks; Donde Esta Santa Claus by Augi Rios also in 1958, and Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer by Elmo and Patsy in 1979.


Popular carols


Of all the various types of Christmas songs, carols seemed to have made the greatest impact musically, having become a favourite, not only at churches, but at Christmas concerts and festive events. Some of the more popular carols include, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, The First Noel, Joy to the World, Silent Night, Away in a Manger, Oh Holy Night, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and Go Tell It on the Mountain, in which the writer stresses the importance of spreading the Good News with the words:

"Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere

that Jesus Christ was born. He comes from the glorious kingdom."

As the years rolled by, Christmas songs began to manifest in popular music, with some making top-10 charts. Two of the earliest and most performed Christmas songs in popular music were The Christmas Song in 1946 and White Christmas in 1942 by Nat Cole and Bing Crosby respectively. White Christmas created history in more ways than one: It made the US charts every Christmas for 21 years after its release in 1942, and is still the biggest selling single of all times. A 2007 independent media survey revealed that both songs, classified as 'standards' in music genre, were among the best-loved Christmas songs. Others in that batch included Bing Crosby's It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, Burl Ives' Holly Jolly Christmas in 1965, Robin Holmes' Jingle Bell Rock in 1967, The Harry Simeone Chorale's Little Drummer Boy and later on All I want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey in 1994.

By the mid-1970s, Christmas songs became more danceable and saw Luther Vandross contributing with the 1976 disco-flavoured hit, May Christmas Bring You Happiness.

In that same year, the Salsoul Orchestra had a big hit with their album, Christmas Jollies which stayed on the US, charts for six weeks in 1976 and returned in 1977 for seven weeks. Also in a disco mood, Boney M was very popular with Mary's Boy Child in 1978. Earlier, Carla Thomas had the perennial favourite, Gee Wiz It's Christmas in 1963. On the slower side, Gladys Knight had When a Child Is Born, while Harry Belafonte recorded Mary's Boy Child. Released in 1957, Mary's Boy Child went straight to No. 1 in the UK charts for 7 weeks, but tumbled to No. 12 after Christmas. It returned to the charts the next two Christmases, reaching No. 10 in 1958 and No. 30 in 1959. In the process, Belafonte created history by becoming the first black man to have a No. 1 hit in the UK and the first ever song to sell one million copies in the UK.


Jamaican versions


On the Jamaican scene, Jamaican artistes also had a fair amount of popular Christmas songs, with Boris Gardiner being perhaps the first to make an impact with The Meaning of Christmas. It sums up in the first six letters - CHRIST - exactly what Christmas was all about:

'C' is for Christmas, the season of good cheer

'H' is for happiness to last throughout the year

'R' is for respect that each and all should show in this holy season wherever you may go.

'I' is for indulgence to know how far to go

'S' is for Santa Claus, the children all do know

'T'is for toys for little girls and boys.

Anywhere you go this Christmas, you'll hear Home T4's Let the Christmas Catch You in a Good Mood still being played. Baga Case was particularly elated to have been selected to lead the song. He told me in an interview: "I was lucky to be chosen to lead, because with the quality of talent within the group, one never knows who would be selected." Alton Ellis' Christmas Coming, Neville Willoughby's Christmas JA, Winston Francis' Here Comes Santa and Carlene Davis's Santa Claus, Do You Ever Come to the Ghetto, must be numbered among the best singles that Jamaicans had to offer for Christmas, while the albums, Christmas in the Sun - Fab5, Christmas Songbook - Derrick Harriott, Christmas Rockers - Joe Gibbs family, and A Vintage Christmas from Sonic Sounds, are unforgettable Christmas gems.