Some of the oldest American Christmas songs reflect the simplicity of holiday atmosphere in small towns and rural areas of early Americans: no Santa Claus, no tinsel and trees, no Christmas stockings. Commercially popular carols later pushed aside many of these traditional songs, but thanks to the effort of collectors such as the Seeger musical family, a great number have been saved for posterity.
Traditional Christmas behavior in 17th and 18th century rural America ranged from total silence to shouting, feasting and dancing, from respectful praying to the shooting of muskets and declamatory speeches. Christmas was not only December 25th, but also the festival of January 6th or old Christmas when animals prayed, and the "firmament" as some believed "trembled with glee." Joseph, Mary and Jesus were often treated as next-door neighbors subject to gossip. "Joseph and Mary" or "Cherry Tree Carol" is an example.
"Then Mary spoke to Joseph,/ So meek and so mild, /Joseph, gather me some cherries, /For I am with Child. /Then Joseph flew in anger,/ In anger flew he, /Let the father of the baby/ Gather cherries for thee."
In the Cherry Tree Carol, Jesus was born on January 6th . The use of the Gregorian calendar testifies to the song’s ancient roots in Europe. "Then Joseph took Mary All on his left knee,/ 'Oh tell me, little Baby, When thy birthday will be.'/ 'The sixth of January My birthday will be, /The stars in the elements/ Will tremble with glee.'"
The oldest American folk songs come from a time when the evenings were long and dark and households were isolated. The length and content of the song could depend on how the participants felt at the time or what resources were available. Sometimes it was only one voice. In some communities people stayed all night to wait for Christmas morning. The long hours may have been passed in song and prayer, but there were also games.
"Leader: Stay and all sing! Choir: What do you sing? Leader: I’ll sing one. Choir: What is one? Etc." It may have been a good way to teach children numbers, at least up to 12 as in this case.
The participants in the festivities were producers as well as consumers of folk culture. Simplicity and repetitiveness were its trademarks. Sometimes all that mattered was the rhythm – to get you up from your seat and loosen stiff muscles. "Leader: Mary had a baby. Choir: Sing-a-lamb. Leader: Mary had a baby. Choir: Sing-a-lamb"
Somber music pieces were often followed by humorous ones as in "Our turkey ran away before a Christmas Day - For you would make a meal of me if I should stay. Our potato ran away before a Christmas Day - for you would make a soup of me if I should stay. ..."
In some areas, notably the Appalachian Mountains, Christmas was celebrated for two weeks. Neighbors would visit each other's homes and have rollicking house parties with musicians playing at the door. Thanks to the recordings of Peggy, Mike and Pete Seeger we can enjoy these American Christmas folk songs today.