Johann Sebastian Bach composed his Weihnachts-Oratorium, or Christmas Oratorio in 1734 and is considered to be part of a group of three oratorios that were composed in Leipzig during this same time, the other two being the Ascension Oratorio and the Easter Oratorio.
The Chistmas Oratorio is a much larger piece than the other two, though, and is performed much more frequently, as well. While its six parts are now often performed together in one sitting, which takes around three hours, Bach originally intended each part to be performed on the major feast days of the Christmas period, which begins of Christmas Day and ends on the Epiphany (January 6). Part I describes the Birth of Jesus; Part II (December 26) the annunciation to the shepherds; Part III (December 27) the adoration of the shepherds; Part IV (New Year’s Day) the circumcision and naming of Jesus; Part V (the first Sunday after the New Year) the journey of the Magi: Part VI (January 6, the Epiphany) the adoration of the Magi. As with many works, Bach re-used movements from prior works to compose the Christmas Oratorio, and in this case, Bach repurposed many movements from three secular cantatas, as well as from what is now a lost cantata (BWV 248a).
The first performance took place between December 25, 1734, and January 6, 1735, but wasn’t heard again until a performance in Berlin in December 1857.
There are many fine performances of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio but this video with the great singers Peter Schreier and Robert Holl, and Niklaus Harnoncourt conducting his orchestra Concentus Musicus Wien really captures the spirit.
And this performance is certainly worth watching as it takes place in the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, one of the churches in which it was premiered.
Here is my favorite recording —