College of Music

University of Colorado Boulder

Music and Caroling an Important Part of Holiday Celebrations, Says Thomas Riis

December 15, 2010

During the holidays, no matter how you celebrate or what your beliefs, music is almost always an important part of the celebration, according to Thomas Riis, a musicologist and director of the American Music Research Center in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s College of Music.

“Singing brings people together and is a natural and comfortable community activity,” Riis said.

While caroling is thought of as a holiday tradition, historically the carol originated as a dance song and was associated with country life in general and making merry, according to Riis.

“Caroling, the practice of going door to door as we think of it nowadays, probably arose in the 19th century. This is certainly when the images come up in the literature,” he said.

It originated at a time when the English, Germans and Americans were thinking about reaffirming family values and local customs.

“Music is wonderful for this,” Riis said. “We walk door to door, we harmonize, we sing songs that we can all take part in. This is not necessarily highly complicated music, but it’s certainly music of good spirit and warm feelings. Think about ‘Jingle Bells,’ think about ‘Silent Night.’ These are simple but very moving songs in their own special way.”

Many of the songs we now associate with the season, such as “Joy to the World” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” were written during this time period, according to Riis.

Holiday songs written more recently, such as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman” and “The Christmas Song” (known as “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”) are more secular in nature and many were written for commercial purposes.

“The inclusive character and images that come up with these songs are attractive to children as well as adults and have become part of the great nostalgia of the season,” he said. “The music of the holiday season is a kind of deep well that many performers, many families and many individuals, of whatever faith and background, will continue to dip into in the years to come.”

Thanks to CU-Boulder News Services for creating this story and video.

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