"Songs of Christmas Past" at the DAR Museum

Written by: Katie Cannon, DAR Museum Curator of Education
December 11, 2018

This year’s DAR Museum Christmas exhibit is centered on your favorite Christmas songs. “Songs of Christmas Past” pairs eight popular carols with a period room from the same decade that gave birth to the song. It examines the link between the two: what does the song tell us about how Christmas was celebrated at the time? The answers may surprise you.

For example, in the California Room you can hear “Jingle Bells.” Written in 1857, it symbolizes a typical Christmas celebration of the time when many people celebrated by carefree public displays of revelry, often involving guns and alcohol. After all, the song never even mentions Christmas or religion—it is all about “what fun it is to ride and sing”! 

But soon after, these raucous public celebrations turned inward to the home, and Christmas became a quieter time to exchange gifts with family members as demonstrated in the Texas Room with “Silent Night,” which was translated from German into English in 1859 and could have been sung in either language by the family in the museum’s 1860s room.

In the Michigan Room you can see that by the 1920s, the Christian holiday was going public again, this time as an officially recognized cultural holiday: the first National Christmas Tree was erected in 1923. This blend of secular and religious celebration is captured in the song “Ding Dong! Merrily on High” which pairs a secular 16th century dance tune with religious words written in 1924.

The exhibit is located in the DAR Museum’s period rooms, each recreating a scene from an earlier time using furnishings in the collection. The eight rooms included in the exhibit, all on the second floor of the museum, are decorated to reflect how Christmas was celebrated in each decade represented, from the 1770s through the 1930s.

 “Songs of Christmas Past” will be on view December 1, 2018 through January 5, 2019. Admission is free and the building is open Monday through Saturday (though it will be closed December 22, 24, 25, 29, 31 and January 1).

Can’t make it in person? You can view the "Songs of Christmas Past" Exhibit Online

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