Or, part 2
Yesterday I covered the pop stuff, but I must say, I feel the carols and/or hymns are where the portrayals of the holiday really get interesting. A much wider range of artistic license is taken. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” for example, is about harassing people into handing over their figgy pudding, while “The Twelve Days of Christmas” endorses the idea of flooding your significant other’s house with (mostly) birds.
Christmas cheer as coercion tactic aside, here are twelve of the traditional tunes and sacred songs I’ve loved most over the years.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
Technically an Advent song, sue me. Each verse is structured around one of the antiphons referring to Jesus (Dayspring, Rod of Jesse, Key of David, etc.), which, although the hymn was composed in Latin, I think makes more sense in English translation. It’s beautiful, and it also evokes the genealogy of people and events that brought about the birth of Jesus. It takes a village, right?
The text of this chant first appeared in 1582 and is thought, ironically, to have been a parody of an earlier chant celebrating the 6 December feast day of the Russian gift-giver St. Nicholas. So it seems it was always destined for Christmas as we know it. It’s a good old-fashioned church-Latin chant, one I was only introduced to in college, but which quickly became dear to my heart.
“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”
Another atypical time signature, and a melody that doesn’t shy away from switching between major and minor modes. The melody is lovely, really befitting the rose metaphor; the harmony lines, especially the alto, might be lovelier.
“There is No Rose of Such Virtue”
No pastime more beloved to early Catholics than personifying the Virgin Mary with flowers. This Middle English carol has been arranged many different ways over the centuries, and I’ve yet to hear one I don’t like. (Okay, I’ve heard like two, but that’s an RBI of 1.0 right there.)
“The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”
Yeah, I’m throwing in another contemporary one. It’s just the epitome of timelessness. Have you ever roasted chestnuts? Have I ever roasted chestnuts? Maybe?? Who cares! You’re overcome with nostalgia even for memories you might not actually have.
The “Coventry Carol”
This is the one that goes “lully-lullay thou little tiny child,” although if it still doesn’t ring a bell I won’t be surprised. It’s not the most festive of carols—it describes the slaughter of the innocents, on King Herod’s orders, in hopes of preventing the child Jesus from growing up and assuming whatever kingship he was rumored to possess—but that’s precisely what I admire about it. The way the haunting melody complements the violent lyric reminds us that there is some darkness inherent even to Christmas.
“Christmas is Coming” (sometimes known, according to my research, as “The Goose is Getting Fat”)
The most important thing about this one, of course, is the ha’penny. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t had one of those in about two hundred years. Specifically in my past life as a chimney sweep in Victorian London. It could only be an English children’s rhyme; America would never accept a currency equivalent to 1/480 of a pound sterling. What even is that exchange rate?
“Here We Come a-Wassailing”
The particular kind of merrymaking known as wassailing is something I believe humans will always do in some way, shape, or form, but the gerund wassailing adds a lot of romance to what is essentially going around greeting people and drinking. Wassail can also refer to the drink itself, usually a mulled cider—there is another carol dedicated to it, which I like even more, but which isn’t quite as season-specific and sounds a bit out of place outside, oh, certain places I haunted as a teenager. I’ll tell you about it sometime.
“How Great Our Joy”
Remember the shepherds? Yeah, they’re a part of *gestures to everything* too! This hymn, I was delighted to discover, is a translation of an old German carol. It has a baroque feel to it, reminiscent of the Messiah, with another very nice modal mix. It’s also one, chorally speaking, that you need a bit of skill to conduct well, and I do love a challenge.
“Every valley shall be exalted”
Speaking of the Messiah, this recitative from the oratorio, originally written for solo tenor, is some of my bestie George Händel’s finest work. Not only is it melodically virtuosic, it’s immensely entertaining to watch a vocalist tackle—particularly on the word crooked, not oft-used in classical texts.
“Stille Nacht / Silent Night”
And speaking of German carols, this is one I’ve taken to singing exclusively in German, because, being the language of origin, the text is more singable. It’s got range, it’s got enough verses to last a while but a short enough structure to make its point if you’re only going to sing one. A pretty perfect carol.
“O Holy Night”
A contender for my favorite religious Christmas song. I’m moved whenever I hear it, let alone sing it. It began life as an abolitionist anthem, an origin referenced most directly in the “Truly he taught us to love one another” verse. So although the refrain may be “O night divine,” it’s even more a meditation on what it means to be human, and how the message of Christ’s birth can empower us to make a better, kinder world. The divinity of humanity, if you will. (The text is also in iambic pentameter, which never hurts.)
What are your favorite Christmas musical moments, secular or sacred?
Image: another local tree, this one in a barbershop