A Christmas Carol: The Ghosts of Christmas Past

by Emily McKinney

The Christmas Carollers: Chris Flithall

Think you’ve never met a ghost? Think again. As foretold by Dickens, the ‘Ghosts of Christmas’ haunt us each year. The Christmas song comes out of hiding in November and haunts us until January. We never forget it. It’s always there. The ghost you can’t bust: the Christmas song.

As recently as the nineteenth-century, Britain did not celebrate Christmas as we do today. Eric Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition argues that the Victorian’s reinvented Christmas with ‘a nostalgic view to promote social harmony.’ Britain created a ‘new’, traditional, Christmas. Carols, however, are ancient.

The first known Christmas hymn was introduced in the fourth century, but the UK’s most popular carols, such as Silent Night, originated in the 1800s. The legend has it that Austrians first sang Stille Nacht following a musical mishap. It gained popularity and was likely introduced to Britain following Queen Victoria’s marriage to the German Prince Albert. Albert, according to Neil Armstrong’s Christmas in the Nineteenth-Century, is responsible for the invention of the British Christmas (alongside Dickens).

The carol resonated for British and German soldiers during a touching moment of back-and-forth bilingual song. Recalled in this advert, the poignant Christmas truce (1914) epitomises the history of traditional carol singing. We watch, 100 years on, as two nations sing the same carol in the middle of war. From the perspective of this advert, Silent Night is undoubtedly a Ghost of Christmas Past.

Bing Crosby’s 1945 version of Silent Night remains the nation’s favourite, even though it has been recorded nearly 800 times since 1978. As a nation, we favour older songs. Over 85% of songs featured on the average Christmas playlist are pre-2000. Why do we so rarely hear a new successful Christmas song?

Armstrong characterises invention of tradition with ‘reference to the past […] imposing repetition.’ So, we perceive songs as ‘traditional,’ and repeat them. We see this in John Legend’s A Legendary Christmas which embraces the successful clichés of Nat King Cole, Legend’s predecessor. Similarly, crooner Michael Bublé’s popular Christmas is a tribute to Bing Crosby, which he cites as being ‘the only Christmas record [his] parents had.’ His intention in modernising these copyright free songs is, he claims, not financial, but sentimental. Bublé and Legend, together with their predecessors, keep the past present and successfully grasp the appeal of nostalgic song.

‘Tis the season to remember the past!

The Ghosts of Christmas Past are a musical contribution to the ‘holiday nostalgia’ phenomenon. The Victorian attire of carollers (pictured) demonstrates the nineteenth-century origins of modern festivities, while holiday lyrics focus on the ‘past’ and ‘time.’ In repetitive song references, we secure the invented traditions of the festive day and memorialise the illustrations of Dickens’ Christmas as a “kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time.”

Whether it’s screeching Slade, or Mary’s Boy Child, the contemporary Christmas charts embrace Christmas past. Be it political, religious, or just plain cheesy – these songs capture moments in ways the songwriters of today just cannot do.

And I, for one, can’t wait to see them again.

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