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Theoretically Speaking, S5:E17 – What Makes Holiday Music, Holiday Music?

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A YouTube video insists you can make any song sound Christmassy by adding a minor 7(♭5) chord.

Um, no.

That would make a lot of Miles Davis tunes Christmas songs.

Featuring the seminal classic, “So What, Rudolph?”

It’s late December and the holidays are upon us.

Christmas, Haunakkah, and New Year’s Day come to my Western Hemisphere-centric mind. But there are gobs of other holidays near the winter solstice. I’ve never heard of some of them.

“OK, everybody:”
“And may all your asstmchiris be bright…”

Regular readers here are familiar with Christmas songs, but I got curious about the music of the holidays I’m not familiar with.

So I went looking for songs for all the various end-of-the-year holidays, hoping to find a common thread (perhaps it’s the minor 7(♭5) chord, after all) that would tell me what makes holiday music, holiday music.

And:

Some holidays have songs you can sing if you want, but they’re not really part of the tradition. Other holidays have no music associated with them at all. There can’t be a common thread when some holidays have no music.

That was disappointing. But I did learn some other cool stuff. So this article is not really about “what makes holiday music, holiday music.” It’s just some interesting music and stories I found while researching holidays.

It seems like a good way to wrap up this series.

Let’s start with the Zen Buddhist holiday, Bodhi Day.

It commemorates the day the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. 

Bodhi Day, also known as Rohatsu, doesn’t have any specific traditional songs but Buddhists may mark the occasion with chanting or sutra recitations.

Bodhi Day is observed on December 8th with different traditions around the world, but the day emphasizes mindfulness and spiritual contemplation. The focus is on meditation, discussions, and rituals to reflect on the significance of the Buddha’s enlightenment. Having said that, Buddhist chanting is pretty musical. Here’s an example.

Pancha Ganapati is a Hindu festival that runs from December 21st to the 25th and celebrates Lord Ganesha.

It’s relatively recent, introduced in 1985 by Western-born guru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, and therefore doesn’t have a long history of traditional songs associated with it.

However, practitioners often sing devotional songs, known as bhajans, dedicated to Lord Ganesha.

The bhajans can be traditional or more contemporary. Some people write their own. There isn’t a universally recognized set of traditional Pancha Ganapati songs, but here’s one I liked.

Like Pancha Ganapati, Kwanzaa is a fairly new holiday, created in 1966 by Maulana Karenga.

He’s currently chair of  the Africana Studies Department at California State University, Long Beach.

He used the “first fruits” tradition that goes as far back as ancient Egypt and Nubia. The tradition celebrates the first fruits of the harvest.

Kwanzaa is a seven day celebration, from December 26 to January 1, with each day focusing on each of the Nguzo Saba, the “seven principles of African Heritage.” They are:

  • Umoja (unity),
  • Kujichagulia (self-determination)
  • Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
  • Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
  • Nia (purpose)
  • Kuumba (creativity)
  • and Imani (faith).

Only a few Kwanzaa songs have been written and it seems like most are for explaining the holiday to kids. This one is more Adult Contemporary. It’s “A Kwanzaa Song” by Lovely Hoffman.

Mawlid al-Nabi celebrates the birthday of Muhammad, the Islamic prophet.

The exact date varies among different traditions and communities because it’s determined by the lunar calendar.

It was in September this year but can fall in December, depending on the sighting of the moon. 

As with Pancha Ganapati, there aren’t any Mawlid al-Nabi specific songs. But traditional devotional songs, known as nasheeds, may be sung to celebrate. Nasheeds are a form of Islamic vocal music used to express love and admiration for Muhammad, praise Allah, and convey religious messages. 

Islam is a global religion so nasheeds vary in language and style depending on local traditions.

Some are a cappella, some have backing music. YouTube has lots of slickly produced videos for these songs.

Anything from Awakening Records is impressive. 

However, there are differing opinions within the Islamic world about the use of music, including nasheeds. Some Islamic scholars and communities don’t observe it as a formal religious practice, while others embrace the celebration.

This song struck me as particularly beautiful:

We here in the west are familiar with quite a few Hanukkah songs:

Like “”Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah,” “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” and, of course:

… Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song.”

There are many others.

One I didn’t know but like a lot is called “Al Hanisim.” It’s sung during Hanukkah prayers and expresses gratitude for the miracles and victories associated with the holiday, particularly the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem.

“Al Hanisim” uses a mode called the Maqam Hijaz. It’s common in Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jewish music. In western music theory, the Maqam Hijaz is a natural minor scale with a lowered second degree. So that makes it a half step from the first note to the second, a step and a half from the second to the third, then a half step, a whole step, a half step, a whole step, and a half step. Or as shown below, D, E♭, F#, G, A, B♭, and C.

Here’s an orchestral choir version of “Al Hanisim,” that caught my ear.

So. Now we come to Christmas. Where to begin?

We think the oldest Christmas song is “Jesus Refulsit Omnium” from 336 CE.

The name roughly translates to “Jesus Shined Upon All” and tells the story of the Magi arriving at the manger and their hope and joy with Christ’s birth. 

“Jesus Refulsit Omnium” may have been written by St. Hilary of Poitiers. He was the bishop of Poitiers in what is now France. 

Parenthetically, my ancestor, Jacques Bois, was born and lived in Poitiers before shipping out to Canada with the French military in 1797.

My wife and I visited Poitiers last spring. It’s a beautiful town with many Medieval buildings, and I recommend you visit.

A lot of characters in Christmas songs are fictional.

I hate to break it to you but there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. There was, however, a Wenceslas. In fact, there was a whole family of them.

Václav Wenceslas, also known as Václav The Good, became the Duke of Bohemia in 921CE and spent part of each day giving assistance to the poor, widows, orphans, and prisoners.

He rose to power through a nasty series of deaths, which he had no part in. Except his own, of course. 

His father died at the age of 33, and it’s speculated he was killed in battle fighting the Polabian Slavs. Václav’s paternal grandmother took over as regent and was quickly murdered by men working for Václav’s mother. He took the title Duke when he turned 18 and his mother was exiled by the few remaining Christians in the court.

Václav had a brother, known as Boleslaus the Cruel. Seriously, people, never name a child anything ending with “the Cruel.” It doesn’t bode well.

Anyway, Boleslaus killed Václav and took over the title.

So if Václav was only a duke, where does the “Good King” part come in? After his death, tales of Václav’s good works spread. Holy Roman Emperor Otto I awarded him the title. So, “Good King Wenceslas” it is. 

Completely unrelated, a popular song in Finland was called “Tempus adest floridum.” Written in 1582, its title means “Eastertime has come”, so it’s about a Christian holiday, but not Christmas, and about a season, but not winter. 

Fast forward to England in 1853. Songwriter John Mason Neale took the Finnish song and wrote new lyrics in English about Good King Wenceslas.

It first appeared in a songbook called “Carols for Christmas-Tide.” And that’s how a Scandinavian springtime melody and story about a dead duke from Bohemia became an English Christmas song.

Because nothing says Christmas like family members murdering each other.

Many songs we consider Christmas songs have nothing to do with Christmas.

They have to do with winter.

“Let It Snow,” “Jingle Bells,” and “Winter Wonderland” are more about the weather than anything Jesus did in the Middle East. It rarely snows there, you know.

The same goes for Australia.

Christmas is the beginning of summer down under. It’s hard to go walking in a winter wonderland when it’s 80° Fahrenheit.

Rolf Harris, who we know from “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” and various nasty allegations, wrote a song about the difficulties Santa might have in those steamy temperatures.

Reindeer, you see, don’t do well in the heat. So Santa replaces them with six white boomers.

“On, Lloyd! On, Walter! On, Melvin…”

No.

A boomer is an “old man kangaroo.” 

Similarly, comedy duo Bucko & Champs rewrote the lyrics to “Jingle Bells,” replacing key words with Australian slang. The first line goes “Dashing through the bush, in a rusty Holden Ute.” Holden was an Australian car manufacturer, and “ute” is short for “utility vehicle.” Most of the other colloquialisms are beyond me.

Not to be outdone, Air New Zealand has put out some Christmas parodies of their own.

Reminding you that the holidays are a great time to visit a warm country like New Zealand, and would you please fly their airline to get there?

Here’s one featuring Ronan Keating from the Irish boy band Boyzone and young Kiwi actor Julian Dennison as the producer rewriting the lyrics to “Winter Wonderland.”

There’s an industry cranking out holiday tunes for Christmas, more so than any other holiday.

For those who believe that Christmas has become too commercialized: there’s another argument in your favor.

Regardless, sing if you like, whatever songs you like, for whatever holiday you like.


Thanks for hanging out with me in Season 5 of Theoretically Speaking.

It’s been fun, and we’ll start up Series 6 sometime after New Year’s Day.

We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.


(Editor’s note:)

Such a great season. Good on you.

Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” Upvote! 

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Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

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LinkCrawford
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December 22, 2023 6:45 am

Now that was a hodgepodge! The Islam song “Maula Ya Salli Wa Sallim” was indeed very beautiful. I’m not used to the quarter-step melisma going on there, but that’s just my western ear for you.

And who isn’t thrown immediately back to 336 when you hear “Jesus Refulsit Omnium”? It’s like it was just yesterday. The harmonies in the recording of that song were pretty complex. I wondered if some liberties were taken in that arrangement. I though most songs from way back then featured only octaves and fifths as harmony.

One quibble, in discussing the Maqam Hijaz mode, you mentioned it was similar to harmonic minor, but the harmonic minor would have a raised 7th. A flat 7th would be the natural minor I think.

Thanks Bill for your unending work. There’s nothing like discovering what music style will be featured in your articles every Friday! Have a good holiday!

LinkCrawford
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December 22, 2023 7:05 am
Reply to  Virgindog

I probably should have PMd about that. Now I’ve brought undue attention to a boo-boo. Apologies. I give you permission to pick apart my next article. (Whenever that is…)

rollerboogie
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December 22, 2023 8:17 am
Reply to  LinkCrawford

The music theory geekery today is really satisfying an itch. Loving it! And who knows? Maybe just maybe it will put us on on the radar of one Vivek Maddala, a.k.a., Steely Dan Halen. Would like to see that guy here.

cstolliver
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December 22, 2023 7:51 am

The happiest of holidays to all here!

As y’all know my AC leanings, no surprise to say I enjoyed the Kwanzaa song a lot. It’s especially cool that she made the seven principles (especially “Kujichagulia”) sound effortless in that chorus.

rollerboogie
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December 22, 2023 8:09 am

I love that the minor 7(b5) (or half-diminished if you prefer) made an appearance today. I have no idea why someone would choose that chord above others in association with Christmas, other than it is a chord frequently used in jazz and a ton of music associated with Christmas, at least here in the U.S., is jazz or jazz-adjacent.

You mentioned Miles Davis, so I feel obliged to bring up that he actually did have a Christmas song, “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern), with the lyrics written and sung by Bob Dorough, who would go on to write and sing for Schoolhouse Rock. It’s a holiday favorite amongst people who do not like all the commercial trappings of Christmas, as the lyrics are incredibly biting and cynical
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTk8vneMOQ0

Phylum of Alexandria
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December 22, 2023 8:36 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

My wife and I both love your jazz Christmas playlists. Three cheers!

rollerboogie
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December 22, 2023 9:19 am

That makes me very happy!

rollerboogie
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December 22, 2023 8:31 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Excellent! So would his band for this be called the Macca-bees?

Last edited 4 months ago by rollerboogie
Phylum of Alexandria
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December 22, 2023 8:39 am

And let us not forget:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCNLAxb5Rg4

Happy holidays everyone!

JJ Live At Leeds
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December 22, 2023 9:49 am

I was about to comment that its a shame there was no musical accompaniment to Festivus and there it is. Frank Costanza would be proud.

JJ Live At Leeds
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December 22, 2023 9:45 am

The perfect seasonal accompaniment. Thanks for your dedication in educating us throughout the year Bill.

I reckon what makes holiday music, holiday music (modern Christmas songs at least) is a liberal sprinkling of clichés, an overdose of schmaltz, a perfunctory smattering of bells and the hope of the composer that the annual royalties will see them through old age.

Then again we were in a Tim Horton’s at the weekend (they’ve been springing up here this year, we didn’t pop over to Canada) and they were playing a selection of ever so tasteful, coffee house Christmas songs. Didn’t recognise any of them but they were all interchangeable and so soporific and maudlin that I couldn’t help thinking whoever compiled the playlist hated Christmas. And humanity in general. Almost put me off my gingerbread hot chocolate.

Merry Christmas one and all!

Low4
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December 22, 2023 11:33 am

Finally, at the end of all things, this is the hill I will die upon. The single best Christmas song:

https://youtu.be/CreWsnhQwzY?si=2ChDfCCp6KBjwtbT

(And it’s this version–no other.)

rollerboogie
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December 22, 2023 8:35 pm
Reply to  Low4

It’s definitely up there for me too. The version featuring Rowlf the Dog in a duet with John Denver on the album John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together comes in second.

mumchance
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December 25, 2023 10:40 am
Reply to  Low4

My wife and daughter have an unreasonable amount of affection for this movie, so I’ve seen it more than I can count (it was a combination Christmas and Halloween movie before that was popular!), and this song is a definite highlight. My daughter and I have a running debate about whether this or “Fairytale of New York”is the most depressing Christmas song.

JJ Live At Leeds
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December 22, 2023 1:42 pm

I’ve just this day discovered that Ringo made a Christmas album in the late 90s. A mix of original songs and cover versions – obviously he does Little Drummer Boy.

It’s exactly what you would expect of a Ringo Christmas album. The weirdest / cheapest thing about it is the cover that it looks like they let the work experience kid loose on with photoshop. My main question is why is Santa Ringo green?

1000004772
rollerboogie
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December 22, 2023 8:36 pm

Nice find. That cover scares the crap out of me. Won’t be listening.

mumchance
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December 25, 2023 10:41 am

Ringo is the Grinch?

cappiethedog
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December 22, 2023 7:14 pm

You wrote an article about pluralism. Thank you, Mr. Bois. And Merry Christmas.

Pauly Steyreen
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December 23, 2023 1:42 pm

I’d like to clarify that a Ute is specifically a utility vehicle that looks like a car merged with a truck. It’s NOT a synonym for SUV. Holden was the Austrailian car manufacturer and they made several Utes that put other to shame.

The classic US Ute is an El Camino but the Holden Utes are real gems! See below for an example, a 2011 Holden Commodore Ute.

Holden-SS-UTE-_4
cappiethedog
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December 25, 2023 5:52 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Rick Majerus, Rest in Peace.

Countdowner
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December 25, 2023 10:12 am

Thanks for the article and thanks for linking to it in TNOCS.

I love Christmas music and I’m not going to block in from my Itunes until maybe April.

I have impressed very little music on my kids but they love some of the less common christmas songs like this one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zukRrcZwV08

and this one, the best version of Jingle Bells:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLf0-lro8X8

More greatness from Frank:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFx-_tml6yo

cappiethedog
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December 25, 2023 6:00 pm
Reply to  Countdowner

I continue to be mildly shocked by the notion that late-period Replacements is somehow inferior to their earlier work. Did you hear Glenn Campbell’s version of “Sadly Beautiful”? “I’ll Be You” is so 10. Paul Westerberg wasn’t selling out. He was maturing. Also, his one-off album with Juliana Hatfield is a 10.

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