Diane Taraz
A Victorian Christmas

© 2013 Diane Taraz, Raisin Pie Music (BMI)

In the mid-1800s, the Victorians revived old traditions and wrote many familiar carols, changing Christmas from a minor holiday into an elaborate celebration. During the Civil War, Americans especially cherished songs of joy and peace.

1. O Tannenbaum
Queen Victoria's beloved Prince Albert, a native of Germany, brought the first decorated evergreen to England in 1840. Fir trees soon filled English and American homes, and families sang this old song to honor the pagan symbol that was now a Christmas tree. The melody is from the 1500s, the 1824 lyrics by Ernst Anschutz. I've used a more accurate translation in the English verses.

2. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
This song dates from the 1700s and was already old in the Victorian era. "Rest ye" means "keep you." It is mentioned in Charles Dickens' 1843 tale of redemption, A Christmas Carol. Charity was especially important at a time when governments had not yet begun to help the poor. Victorians stressed private giving as a duty, epitomized by the good-hearted gentlemen who visit Ebenezer Scrooge asking for donations.

3. It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
In 1849 the Civil War was over 10 years away, but tensions were rising. That year Rev. Edmund Sears, minister of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts, wrote this antiwar poem that was set to music by Richard Willis. The fourth verse, probably addressed to America's millions of slaves, is seldom included in today's hymnals and carol collections.

4. Good King Wenceslas
Wenceslas (or Wenceslaus), Duke of Bohemia, lived from 907 to 935 and died at the age of 28. In 1853 English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote a song about him with Thomas Helmore. The tune is based on a 13th-century springtime carol from Finland. Carols were originally circle dances, enjoyed at any time of year. The feast of Stephen is December 26, and the song's tale of Christian charity made it dear to the Victorian heart.

5. Stille Nacht (Silent Night)
In 1859 John Young, an Episcopal bishop in Florida, published an English version of Stille Nacht, which had been written in 1818 by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, and his organist, Franz Gruber. The original had six verses, set to Gruber's gently yodeling melody in 6/8 time, which lent it an Oktoberfest swing.

Legend says that the organ was broken, so the composers created a song with guitar for Christmas Eve. I find the literal translation more charming than our English version, especially that curly hair on the laughing baby. Mohr's poetry was chock full of exclamation points, as well, adding a breathless excitement.

Silent night! Holy night!
All are sleeping, alone and awake,
Only the intimate holy pair,
Lovely boy with curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

Silent night! Holy night!
Son of God, oh how he laughs!
Love from your divine mouth.
Then it hits us -- the hour of salvation!
Jesus at your birth!
Jesus at your birth!

Silent night! Holy night!
To shepherds it was first made known
By the angel, Alleluia!
Sounding forth loudly, far and near,
Jesus the Saviour is here!
Jesus the Saviour is here!

6. Away in a Manger
The writer of these tender lyrics is unknown. The melody is by James Ramsey Murray, published in 1887. Murray called it "Luther's Cradle Hymn" and attributed the words to Martin Luther, but there is no such poem among Luther's papers. The words bring to mind the old prayer "Now I lay me down to sleep," recalling a time when death was a more constant presence than it is today, and childhood a particularly hazardous time.

7. We Three Kings
In 1857 John Henry Hopkins, Jr., Episcopal deacon at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, created this sing-along for the Christmas pageant. The verses in a minor key evoke the mysterious East as Hopkins notes each royal gift: gold for royalty; frankincense for divinity; and myrrh, an incense used to mask unpleasant odors, as found in a stable -- or a tomb. Hopkins sweeps everyone up in that wonderful "oh - oh" for the chorus in a triumphant major key.

8. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lost his first wife, Mary, in 1835 after a miscarriage, and his second wife, Frances, known as Fanny, in 1861 when her dress caught fire. Despondent, he wrote little for years, but in 1864, the fourth and worst year of the Civil War, he created this lament. Two of his verses are seldom sung today, as they are specifically about the war. At the end the poet hopes for the return of peace on earth.

9. Matilda Toots
It's a shame that the original sheet music, published in 1855, does not name the composer of this delightful romance on ice. When Tilda's beau calls a cab, it is of the horse-drawn type. To see the wonderful cover to the original sheet music, watch my YouTube video by clicking the link on my home page.

10. The One-Horse Open Sleigh
Published in 1857, James Pierpont's jaunty song originally had this title, slightly different words, and a more athletic melody. He was inspired by races in his hometown of Medford, Mass. The bells were for safety, as a sleigh moves quietly and snow muffles hoofbeats. A sleigh pulled by a horse that can run a mile in two minutes and forty seconds ("2:40 as his speed") is going 22 miles an hour -- a thrilling rate, no doubt deeply impressive to young ladies, who just might have to clutch the driver tightly to keep from being tossed into a snowbank.

11. Minuit, Chrétiens
In 1847 Placide Cappeau, a wine merchant, was asked by his village priest to write a poem for midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Cappeau did so on the train to Paris and gave his poem to friends who knew Adolphe-Charles Adam, who set it to music. The song was soon translated into many languages. In 1855 John Sullivan Dwight of Boston, an influential music critic and ardent abolitionist, gave us our English translation, O Holy Night, with its emphasis that "the slave is our brother."

12. Auld Lang Syne
The Victorians adored all things Scottish and loved Robert Burns' wistful poem, written in 1788. Burns told his publisher it was based on "a song of the olden times" and that he "took it down from an old man." A 1711 poem by James Watson has words much like the ones we still sing on New Year's Eve as we mark the passage of time and remember old friends. That's "my jo" in the chorus, as Bobbie Burns wanted.

This is the third time I have recorded this song. The first, on Hope! Says the Holly, was an a cappella version of the original melody Burns chose for his poem (he never wrote music, but used existing tunes). The second, on The Old New Year, was a lovely guitar setting by Tracy Moore, my guitar teacher. And here it comes again, this time with dulcimer and a roomful of revelers. I think I'm done!