We may not all enjoy the same climate on Christmas Day, but whether we are roasting chestnuts on an open fire or sipping white wine in the sun, the likelihood is that we are all listening to much the same music.

Christmas, Classical Music Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Census of Bethlehem(detail)

But before you put that down to globalisation, bear in mind that the same might well have held true for our Victorian forbears, and their forbears before them, whether Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or just plain up for a good seasonal tune. So how did that happen, and where has the best and most enduring Christmas music come from? Let’s take a whirlwind tour across time and space…

Dancing boots and medieval roots

You need only look at the average medieval altarpiece to know that music and dancing formed a crucial part of the Christmas celebrations. The jolly angel band that Grünewald painted for Issenheim, for example, shows us just what kind of instruments might be heard accompanying what even then was called a ‘carol’, which was simply another word for a ‘round dance’. In fact, the genre can be traced as far...

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