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Songs to Make Winter Bright

Traditions of Singing at Christmas and Other Winter Holidays

Winter in the Northern Hemisphere is a time of darkness and cold. Is it any wonder that winter holidays, coming during the shortest days of the year, center around light and song to make life brighter and easier to bear? Take, for instance, the following Smithsonian Folkways selections. The excitement of children seeing the sparkling Christmas tree is heard in a Danish song. Pete Seeger sings a Chanukah (Hanukkah) song; the words tell about the traditions of this Jewish holiday, including the lighting the eight candles of the menorah. A Spanish Christmas carol tells of the brilliant Star of Bethlehem that, according to tradition, lit the way to the place Jesus was born. And a song about the absence of holiday candlelight in Black communities during apartheid in South Africa tells about a harsher side of this joyous time.

A-Caroling We Go

The tradition of caroling (group singing, usually going from place to place and asking for small treats) during the Christmas season is widespread throughout the world. Carols usually have catchy tunes and multiple parts for singers of all abilities. In England, groups like the Coal Ashton Singers from North-East Derbyshire carol through town and countryside, finishing in the local pub for a cup of cheer and more singing. The "Parranda" is a Puerto Rican caroling tradition. Musicians and singers go from house to house, stopping to party for a short while. In Ukrainian communities, carolers go out on Christmas Eve and during the Feast of Epiphany, and are often invited into homes for dinner. In the Philippines, special Christmas lanterns are hung from houses, and carols are sung in homes and hymns in church in Tagalog and other languages. In Portugal, lively songs called "Reis" (Kings) or "Janeiras" (Januaries), sung by young people going from house to house, usher in the New Year.

Just for Children

The winter holidays hold special joy and meaning for children. Music of the season, sung either for or by children, can teach important lessons as well as express the excitement and anticipation of the holidays. During the eight days of Chanukah, children look forward to lighting one more candle each day, and often receive a present each day as well. In the Netherlands and some other European countries, children put out their shoes for St. Nicholas on the night of December 5th and awake to find presents. In Greece, St. Basil brings presents on New Year's Eve. Both gift-giving occasions are immortalized in song. In Mexico, children participate in a celebration called Las Posadas, meaning "the inns" or "shelters." Each night during the nine days leading up to Christmas Eve, community members re-enact Mary and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem. A procession goes through the streets, stopping each night at a pre-arranged home, and culminating in a merry evening during which children break piñatas full of candy and small gifts.