On Christmas Eve in 1920 John Meredith Langstaff was born into a music-filled home where a rousing, wassailing carol party was the peak of his family’s year.
Half a century later, the Christmas Revels was born, a theatrical weaving of traditional song, dance, and drama that has become a beloved institution across the country.
From his years as a star choirboy (and notorious troublemaker) to his early career as a noted recital singer; from a daunting World War II injury to his work as recording artist, TV performer, teacher, and children’s author, Langstaff fused his passions for music, ritual, and community to create the participatory celebration that is the Revels.
This according to The magic maker: A portrait of John Langstaff, creator of the Christmas Revels by Susan Cooper (Somerville: Candlewick Press, 2011; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2011-12592).
Today would have been Langstaff’s 100th birthday! Above, Langstaff at the 1998 Revels (photo by Roger Ide); below, highlights from the 2004 Revels.
In an experiment, 44 undergraduate students were asked to listen to white noise and instructed to press a button when they believed that they were hearing a recording of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas without this recording actually being presented.
Fourteen participants (32%) pressed the button at least once. These participants had higher scores on fantasy proneness and the Launay–Slade Hallucination Scale (LSHS) compared to participants without hallucinatory reports. Both groups did not differ in terms of imagery vividness or sensitivity to social demands.
Logistic regression suggested that fantasy proneness is a better predictor of hallucinatory reports than are LSHS scores. This might imply that hallucinatory reports obtained during the White Christmas test reflect a non-specific preference for odd items rather than schizophrenia-like internal experiences.
This according to “Another White Christmas: Fantasy proneness and reports of hallucinatory experiences in undergraduate students” by Harald Merckelbach and Vincent van de Ven (Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry XXXII/3 [September 2001] pp. 137–44). Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this study to our attention!
Below, White Christmas and fantasy proneness in Hollywood; wait for the dialogue around 2:00!
Every year from Christmas to Epiphany, the communities descended from the African slaves who mined gold for the Spaniards celebrate the Adoraciones al Niño-Diós in the Andean valleys of Cauca in southwestern Colombia.
The celebrants sing and dance until dawn in front of a creche set up in one of the village houses. A group of six musicians, unusual because it includes violins, accompanies the women who are the singers and the leaders of the ritual.
The tradition is documented on the CD Colombie: Adoration à l’enfant-Dieu (Département du Cauca) (VDE-Gallo 1349 ). Below, a brief documentary on Auroras al Amanecer, the group featured in the recordings.
The kolijani-koleda event on Krk, which takes place in the Christmas and New Year period, is marked by processions moving from house to house expressing good wishes, together with a choosing-the-king custom. Through changes and innovations this ritual has ensured its firm entrenchment in the consciousness of the people.
The symbolic presentation of village unity moves from the secular to the religious sphere; their mutual permeation is constant and inseparable, and the performance of the ritual is the present expression of collective identity and feelings. The dialectical relationship between tradition and revival is confirmed in the interweaving of the old pre-Christian symbols (although they are expressed with new meaning or just repeated as a rule) with the most contemporary expressions of identity.
This according to “The kolijani ritual event on the island of Krk, Croatia: Continuity or revival?” by Tvrtko Zebec (Yearbook for traditional music XXXVIII  pp. 97–107). This issue of Yearbook for traditional music, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above and below, excerpts from a 1989 documentary on kolijani in Dubašnica.
In 2015 A-R Editions issued a new critical edition of Pueri concinite by Johann von Herbeck (1831–77). This edition is the first to present the piece in its original orchestration with complete scholarly apparatus.
Pueri concinite has proved to be Herbeck’s best-known and best-loved work. The tenor soloist in the first performance, on Christmas Day 1868, was Gustav Walter, who was associated with the Hofoper. Walter was the first in a long line of tenor soloists, including Placido Domingo in modern times, who have sung this piece in the Wiener Hofkapelle and other venues.
When Irving Berlin first conceived the song White Christmas he envisioned it as a throwaway—a satirical novelty number for a vaudeville-style stage revue; but after Bing Crosby introduced it in the film musical Holiday inn (1942) it evolved into something far grander: the stately yuletide ballad that would become (by some estimations) the world’s all-time top-selling and most widely recorded song.
Berlin, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, had written his magnum opus, a timeless song that resonates with some of the deepest themes in American culture: yearning for a mythic New England past, belief in the magic of the Christmas season, and longing for the havens of home and hearth.
Today the song endures not just as an icon of the national Christmas celebration but as the artistic and commercial peak of the golden age of popular song, a symbol of the values and strivings of the World War II generation, and of the saga of Jewish-American assimilation. It has been recorded by everyone from Crosby to Elvis Presley to *NSYNC.
This according to White Christmas: The story of an American song by Jody Rosen (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 2002). Below, the classic Crosby clip followed by a memorable version by The Drifters.
While the popular carol The twelve days of Christmas is well known for its unusual cumulative structure, few carollers know that the lyrics’ original meaning involves an elaborate symbolic code.
The encoding of political messages in songs was frequent in Protestant England: examples include Rock-a-bye, baby, on the demise of King Henry VIII, and Ring around a rosy, on the plague of 1665. From at least the 1600s, Catholics in England disseminated their faith and politics in similarly encrypted form in catechism songs such as Green grow the rushes, O, and Go where I send thee.
Though first published only in 1909, The twelve days of Christmas is such a catechism song, and likely originated much earlier. The “true love” of the song is God, who bestows cumulative gifts. Each of the twelve gifts represents a particular image of Catholic faith. The ever-repeating “partridge in a pear tree” is Jesus: In English folklore the partridge feigns injury to lure predators from its young, and is thus willing to sacrifice itself to save those for whom it is responsible.
This according to “The twelve days of Christmas” by Hugh D. McKellar (The hymn: A journal of congregational song XLV/4 [October 1994] pp. 30–32). Below, a performance by the University of Washington Choral Program (with a little help from their friends).
The folia de reis Christmas tradition of southeastern Brazil involves a group of musicians and clowns traveling from house to house in a symbolic re-enactment of the journey of the Magi. The performers sing to bless the families they visit, and the families contribute money and food; the money is used to mount a festival on 6 January for the contributors.
Familial symbolism operates on various levels: At each stop, the group begins with an adoration of the Holy Family; then they sing directly to the members of the family they are visiting, with verses ordered to reflect traditional familial hierarchy; and the culminating festival unites all of the faithful in a symbolic extended family. The performing group itself is organized on a familial model.
Since the fifteenth century—perhaps even earlier—a group of young choirboys known as los seises has danced for feast days in the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede in Seville. These cantoricos were performing in Christmas Eve plays by the beginning of the sixteenth century.
Documents from 1505 record expenses for masks for the boys’ performance as singing and dancing shepherds, and toward the middle of the sixteenth century the Council Acts indicate performance of a farsa de Navidad. As described in 1541, these brief skits were often associated with lively dance numbers from the contemporaneous Spanish theater. These diversions appear to have caused some offense, as a 1549 decision banned the performances, allowing only devotional singing.
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