5 festive songs and their origins

Posted on December 13, 2021

Wherever there are year-end celebrations and solstice festivities, there is music. Whether at family gatherings, on the radio, in concerts or in intimate settings, music goes hand in hand with celebration. In every language, the music of song puts us back in touch with the beauty of nature. Whether contemporary or traditional, songs can be joyful, tender or meditative. To me, songs are also a reflection of Canada’s diversity. Let me present a few of these songs to you.

1. Ksahkommii

Song, just like dance, plays an important role for First Nations. Everything in the human environment is an inspiration for song: nature, Earth, the Cosmos. “Ksahkommii,” the title of this contemporary song from the Blackfoot Nation, means “Mother Earth” in English. The lyrics describe the relationship between humans and nature. They remind us that we can nurture this relationship through our five senses. The song also vocalizes the call of the bison, an animal on which the Blackfoot depended for survival. This is one way to thank the Earth for the life it gives us. You can listen to the audio version of “Ksahkommii (opens in new tab) on the National Arts Centre website.

2. Le sentier de neige

This hit by the Quebecois group Les Classels immediately comes to mind when I think about winter. Known for dressing all in white, the group composed this ballad in the 1960s. “Le sentier de neige courant la vallée” (The snow-covered trail that winds through the valley) / “Où dansent en cortège des sapins gelés” (Where the frozen fir trees dance). This picture-postcard description makes you want to put on your boots and coat and enjoy the winter wonderland outside. Later in the song, we hear: “Je t’ai dit je t’aime dans la paix des bois” (I told you that I love you in the quiet of the forest). To me, these words are an invitation to enjoy some calm, peaceful moments with our loved ones and tell them how much we love them!

3. Jingle Bells

Bells often accompany this traditional American song, because the song evokes the joyful tinkling of sleighbells. Today, we associate the sound of the sleighbells with Santa’s sleigh, but as you might imagine, that’s not what the song alluded to originally. The author of this song, James Lord Pierpont, was actually describing horse-drawn sleigh races. In the 1850s, these races were organized every November in his home town in Massachusetts to celebrate Thanksgiving. In fact, “Jingle Bells” was originally titled “One-Horse Open Sleigh.” I have a soft spot for this song, because it was the first song I learned in English, my second language. And I’m sure I’m not the only one! With its fast-paced rhythm and references to how fun it is to ride in a sleigh, this song is sure to remind us of the joy of playing in the snow!

4. O Tannenbaum

Did you know that this ode to the king of the forest originated in Germany? You might know it as “O Christmas Tree.” The version we hear today was written by composer Ernst Anschütz in 1824. “O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree / How lovely are thy branches.” The lyrics pay tribute to the evergreen, the tree that brightens up the winter forest. The Germanic people admired the life force of its branches, which are always green. This is why evergreens were used to decorate homes and sacred places. The reason people started putting candles in these trees in the 17th century was, as we might guess, to celebrate the return of the light, which begins with the winter solstice.

5. Riu riu chiu

According to some, this Spanish song is attributed to Mateo Flecha, a Renaissance composer. It’s a villancico, a popular 16th century dance that was initially secular and then religious. The title “Riu riu chiu” can be interpreted in a few ways. My favourite interpretation is that of the song of a nightingale or kingfisher. This song reminds us that not all parts of the world are covered in snow in December and January!

In the end, is it the celebration that makes us want to sing or the songs that make us want to celebrate? Either way, music transports us: to other cultures, to nature and within ourselves. So tell me: what music do you listen to at this time of the year?

Translated by Elizabeth Tan


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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Ève Lyne Marchand

Ève Lyne Marchand

Ève Lyne Marchand has been an English-to-French translator for the Government of Canada since 2009. She specializes in employment, training and project management. In addition to translation, she studied creative writing and music—her gateways to a parallel life where she writes works of poetry, fantasy and science fiction.


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Submitted by Martin Damus on December 13, 2023, at 15:59

Thanks! As a choral singer (always busy at this time of year), I appreciate learning more about songs.

Submitted by Vladyslav Bondarenko on December 13, 2023, at 18:06

Thank you Ève Lyne Marchand for inspiring article at the middle of Christmas season. It was a pleasure to listen to Ksachkommii song.
I found myself listening to Georg Friedrich Handel: Messiah.

Merry Christmas and Happy New year.

Submitted by EL Marchand on December 27, 2023, at 9:15

Yes, Handel's Messiah is a very festive one. Thank you for this suggestion. Happy Holidays.