Christmas was always a somewhat troubling holiday for really devout believers. Its syncretist roots were quite plain from the start and in the beginning some of the newly-converted might have been aware of things like the religious meaning of mistletoe in North Germanic mythology. But even outside the north, Christmas was a blend with Roman Saturnalia. It was a holiday for feasting and getting drunk, with a religious excuse pasted lightly on. So the struggle by devout non-drinkers to “put Christ back into Christmas” has been going on for a long time. The first two rounds were during the Middle Ages.
St. Francis lived in the 1200s. Instead of joining an established religious order, he chose to live an idiosyncratic monastic life that became a new kind of order. Monasteries tended to become wealthy and corrupt over a century or two, although each one began with an ideal of poverty and devotion. People left property to them in their wills, and although no single monk or abbot owned the land, some found themselves administering a pretty generous budget. Monasteries had a second problem: they had always been for withdrawing from secular life and living apart in contemplation instead of helping people. Monasteries helped some sick people, but they weren’t charitable organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the United Way. They ran some small schools, but they did not attempt to instruct the general population.
So Francis left his parents’ home and began to wander the countryside preaching to Italian peasants. A musician by training, he decided to use music to reach people’s hearts. He set some devotional poems to music, the first modern folk hymns. He paid special attention to Christmas. St. Francis is credited with creating the first educational Nativity Scene program for the locals. He used live animals and people posed as the figures, as he told the story in an outdoor setting. As far as we can tell, all of the Nativity Scene traditions began with Francis in Italy. And because Francis’s chief concern was to inspire and educate the people, he used spoken Latin, i.e. Italian, not the classical language. All Franciscan-inspired folk hymns followed this tradition, using Italian, German, French and English.
By the 15th century, music was changing rapidly. Within the church, trained musicians had gradually developed harmony and music notation. Just as it was becoming modern harmony with several voices moving at once (rather than one sustained bass note with melody above it), and just as the musical notation became able to convey timing as well as pitch, the official church became worried that the music was distracting attention from the religious meaning of the Mass. In 1324, the Pope forbade use of complex motets and forced monastic and cathedral choirs to dial back about a century or two to much simpler early polyphony and plainchant.
During the 1400s, music theory came out into the secular world. Minstrels began to play more than one musical instrument at the same time, and motets were written for secular lyrics. Christmas music began to change. Christmas season had always been a time for dancing, and now dance music began to pick up where church music had left off. The earliest Christmas songs still in use today might trace back to the 15th century. “The Holly and the Ivy” might go back this far.
The cult of the Virgin Mary was extremely important by the time of the new Christmas hymns (still called “carols” after the dance form). Our oldest Christmas songs are often written from Mary’s point of view, or call attention to Mary’s personal story. Perhaps the best example of a Marian Christmas hymn from this early period is “Lo, How a Rose.”