Holiday Music in Ontario Schools

For as long as Ontario schools have been celebrating the winter holidays, holiday music has made its way into the province’s elementary and secondary classrooms. This month’s OHEC display features Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s music found in Ontario textbooks.

Our collection’s records of official school holidays dates back to 1897. Ever since then, Christmas vacation has been a consistent, government-sanctioned school holiday, with most schools closing between the 20th and 23rd of December and reopening the first full week of the new year. By the turn of the 20th century, Christmas in Canada had become largely the holiday it is today, with Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, and Christmas carols established in the Canadian home during the Victorian era.

This “Christmas Carol” is a variant of “We Three Kings” taken from Canadian Sunday School Harp (1866)

Christmas carols at the turn of the century were often derived from hymns, such as the version of “We Three Kings” shown in the Canadian Sunday School Harp book (1866). Titled here as “Christmas Carol”, this version published in Toronto and popularized by church choirs. Other holiday hymns such as “Joy to the World”, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “O Come, All ye Faithful” were published for use in Ontario schools through the 1950s in books such as Hymns for Schools (1952).

Lyrics added to Brahms “A Christmas Carol” published in The New Road of Song 6 (195?)

In the 1930s and 1940s, Ontario experienced a province-wide push from education reformers to incorporate more music into the school curriculum. Ontario universities such as Queen’s University and Western University added Music Teacher’s College programs to train musicians to teach in elementary and secondary schools, while songbooks such as the Canadian Singer series (1940s) and The New High Road of Songs series (1950s) emerged as textbooks for new music classes. These textbooks introduced students to both old and new Christmas music. Pieces ranged from classical – Brahms “A Christmas Carol” – to traditional – “Here we Come a Wassailing” and “O Evergreen” –  to  new Canadian songs such as Rose Fyleman and Clifford Higgins’  “Winnipeg at Christmas”. By the mid 1940s, Christmas concerts were included in schools as part of the holiday festivities. A copy of a Hamilton Normal School (teacher’s college) 1944 yearbook reported hosting a holiday celebration in which elementary students sang Christmas carols and played instruments.

“O Hanukkah” from Music 7 (1967) is among the earliest Hanukkah songs found in the OHEC textbook collections.

Towards the late 1960s, Ontario music textbooks began to include a wider selection of holiday carols. A joint textbook published between the Montreal and London school boards called Music 7 (1967) included multiple Hanukkah songs such as “O Hanukkah” shown on the left. A French textbook Musicabec pour le temps des Fêtes (1984) was added to junior and intermediate music curriculum and featured many original French carols such as “La cloche de Noël”“La guignolée”, and “D’où viens-tu bergère”. By the late 1980s and 1990s, holiday activities were officially an established part of the school curriculum. Textbooks such as We Celebrate Christmas (1985) and We Celebrate Hanukkah (1986) were added to the primary social studies curriculum and included games, crafts, and songs celebrating their respective holidays.

These books will be on display in the glass table on the ground floor of the OISE Library through the end December. Also stop by to check out a selection of New Year’s carols.



About Jenna Mlynaryk

TALint (Toronto Academic Libraries Intern) at the OISE Library | Master of Information (LIS), 2020 | University of Toronto
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