Thursday, 8 December 2016


It’s that time of year again: when even going about one's daily routine – shopping for groceries and sundries, driving to work, returning from work, unwinding in front of a radio or TV – one's ears are assaulted by the seemingly never ending incessant drone of the "popular" Christmas carol: classic Christmas carols, pop Christmas carols, jazz Christmas carols, country Christmas carols, rock n’ roll Christmas carols…it’s enough to drive a person stark raving mad!

If, like me, you find the overabundant display of musical good cheer especially grating on the psyche, you may take some guilty pleasure in knowing that you are far from alone in your Grinch-like behavior:

Did You Know?

…that the performing of Christmas carols was outright banned in England during the mid-17th century?

In fact, the entire Christmas season, complete with all of its festive trappings – singing included - would be strictly prohibited under threat of a hefty fine under Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan leadership. To carol door to door or in the street meant to don the dress of an outlaw.

For millennia, the carol had been an omnipresent force in Europe at feastings and to mark momentous occasions – such as the Winter Solstice – however it wouldn’t be until the year 129 (Anno Domini) that the secular themed carol adopted religious overtones when the so-called pagan tune “Angel’s hymn” was decreed a sacred trapping for use at Christmas after a Bishop living in Rome at the time used it for his Church Services. It would be here that the carol’s association with the Birth of Christ would find its genesis, and from here that the carol would soon be profligated across Europe -  in the form of musical accompaniment for so called Nativity plays, first introduced to Christian Europe by the Saint Francis of Assisi.

By the middle ages, the ‘wassailer’ was born: groups of singers who would bring to homes the word of the Lord, via door-to-door a capella performance of the Christmas Carol. It seemed this rather festive, community-inclusive pastime was becoming all the rage across the continent.

One of many "Publick Notices" prominently displayed on theater and tavern
doors in Cromwell's England. This one states: "The observation of Christmas
having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of gifts and greetings, dressing
in fine clothing, feasting and similar Satanical practices are hereby FORBIDDEN
with the offender liable to a fine of FIVE SHILLINGS."
Not every Christian could count themselves fans of this seemingly unyielding musical trend, however. In 1644 England, the Puritan leader and Statesman Oliver Cromwell would issue a parliamentary ban on the Christmas festival – caroling included – under the threat of a having to pay a sizable (at the time) sum to the government in the form of a fine. The ban included not only the act of caroling, but also of feasting, adorning one’s home or proprietorship with the sinful trappings of holly or ivy – even the hanging of mistletoe was strictly verboten. Theaters hosting Christmas themed pantomimes and taverns serving Christmas ale were shuttered for the season, and “Publick Notice” placards took the place of the “Open for Business” signage formerly proudly displayed on the doors of local neighborhood haunts.

The Grinch who (literally) stole Christmas: Statesman Oliver Cromwell
To sing, or perform any of the strictly forbidden tidings, meant one was not only breaking the law, but, according to Cromwell’s Puritan beliefs, meant unlawfully practicing “popish” ritual through displaying an overzealous dictation of “Christ’s Mass.” Such sinful eccentricity had to be silenced in order to preserve the core Christian beliefs of Puritan England. By 1647, Long Parliament had all but abolished Christmas itself.

It would not be until the restoration of the English Monarchy in 1660 – which effectively overturned legislation from Cromwell’s reign – that the Christmas festival – complete with holly, mistletoe – and yes, caroling – would be made legal for public consumption. Although caroling did indeed continue (in occulto, by outlaws of the chorus) in Puritan England, it could not compare to the right to perform freely – in public, and in the private homes of many who shared the Christmas Spirit.

Did You Know?

Schirra's harmonica by Hohner, now on display at the
National Air and Space Museum, "Apollo to the Moon" Exhibition.
The popular carol “Jingle Bells” was never intended to represent Christmas? The famous tune was first published in the USA in 1857 under the title “A One Horse Open Sleigh.” The sleigh mentioned, however, was not Santa’s. It belonged to a boy who enjoyed the pastime of sled racing – and impressing young girls along the way!

Jingle Bells would become synonymous with Christmas, and the “sleigh” with Santa thanks in part to two astronauts of the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), who famously horrified mission control at Houston one week before Christmas in 1965 (December 16) when Gemini 6 astronaut Tom Stafford radioed the following message about an Unidentified Flying Object:
“Roger, Houston, Gemini VII, this is Gemini VI. We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit. He's in a very low trajectory traveling from north to south and has a very high climbing ratio. It looks like it might even be a ... Very low. Looks like he might be going to reenter soon. Stand by one ... You might just let me try to pick up that thing."
He then played for mission control a recording of Jingle Bells, courtesy of fellow astronaut on board Wally Schirra, who performed the popular tune on harmonica..making the famous carol the first ever song to be played live from space.

Now that's what I call a festive carol.

Audio from Gemini VI can be heard below.


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