The Christmas Oratorio is in six parts, each of which is a cantata, to describe the three major feast days of Christmas (25, 26 and 27 December, the birth of Jesus), New Year’s Day (the circumcision and naming of Jesus), the first Sunday after New Year and the Epiphany (6 January). We perform the three first parts of the work.
Only part of the music was a new composition by Bach. Several chorales and arias originate from previous compositions by Bach, including a congratulatory cantata for members of the Electoral House of Saxony. Such copying or even changing of previous compositions is known as parody music, not because it’s amusing, as we associate the word today, but as a serious technique or as a reuse of music to present new text.
The work was performed for the first time in Leipzig during Christmas/New Year 1734/35, but it would take well over a century until it was performed again, in Berlin in 1857.
For many people, it’s now a musical “must” at Christmas time.