Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Christmas Carols and Songs

One of the best things about this time of year is the music. I look forward to Dec. 1st, when I begin playing my many Christmas albums, from Celtic instrumentals with nature sounds to Burl Ives and Josh Groban. Late on Christmas Eve, I’ll turn out all the lights except for the Christmas tree, put my headphones on and listen to a bunch of my favorite carols in that stillness, feeling peaceful and close to God. That is the best moment of the holidays for me.
Though carols have existed since the 9th century, they became more widespread across Europe under the influence of St. Francis of Assisi. And many carols that are still sung today, such as “Oh Come All Ye Faithful(Adeste Fidelis)” and “Greensleeves” have words or music dating from that time. The habit of carolers going from house to house began in the 1800′s and singers were rewarded with ale or mine pies. Nowadays, caroling groups often collect money, which is donated to charity. In that respect, Band Aid’s 1984 hit,“Do They Know It’s Christmas”, to raise funds to fight famine in Ethiopia, was a large scale version of that worthy tradition.
My most beloved carol has always been “Away in a Manger” because of the lullaby atmosphere and all the animals mentioned. When I was little, it pleased me that the animals were much more welcoming to The Holy Family than humans were and this song celebrates that. Another favorite is Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “I Believe in Father Christmas”(1977), which, while I cannot understand many of the words, still conveys the power of the holiday and a winter’s night.
Curious about other people’s favorites, I asked my fellow Book Foxes for theirs. They listed a surprising variety!
Anne immediately replied “I really love O Little Town of Bethlehem – because the line “the hopes and fears of all the years” always makes me cry – it feels like the beginning and end of everything, when you’re desperately hoping something miraculous will happen and fearing it won’t, and then astonishingly it does.
I also love (heck, am I allowed two?!) It Came Upon A Midnight Clear – because I think the words are truly amazing, especially (about the angels) the line: “Still their heavenly music floats / o’er all the weary world”.
Plus I think both tunes to both carols are absolutely perfect and spot on for what the writer is trying to say. The perfect combination.”
Hilary named one that I was unfamiliar with. “Because I love Folk and traditional music, I particularly love carols with ancient origins. There’s one I particularly love that has lots of beautiful modern settings, a cradle song called ‘Balulalow’. It’s set by Britten in his ‘Ceremony of Carols’ in a particularly touching version. My favourite line in it is ‘The knees of my heart shall I bow’. In fact, this is the whole thing:

Oh my dear heart young Jesus sweet
Prepare thy cradle in my sprit
And I shall rock thee to my heart
And never more from thee depart
And I shall praise thee ever more
With songes sweet unto thy glore
The knees of my heart shall I bow
And sing that right balulalow

I love its naivety so much – and Britten’s music is angelic.”

Our rebel, Eve, is true to form, telling us, “I love “O Come All Ye Faithful” , not because of any good reason at all but because when we sang it at school we were absolutely FORBIDDEN to sing the descant part and my friends and I would incur the wrath of all the teachers by breaking that rule at the carol concert when it was too late for them to do anything about it.
Detentions all round… but it was so worth it! Nothing like a Christmas Carol to insert a bloody great rousing descant.”
Moira is serious for once, “I love “Quem Pastores” … very simple, and extraordinarily beautiful … It was my first ever solo at a school concert and I only have to start singing it and the memories flood back.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” runs it a very close second – although it’s more Advent than Christmas – so solemn, so elegiac and with such a weight of history behind it … “
Kirsty enthusiastically jumped in, “I do love the Coventry Carol (and I agree totally with Eve about descants!) and of course Freddie singing “Thank God It’s Christmas,” which gets played all year round at our house… “
And Lisa lists another that I also really like, “Good King Wenceslas has always been a favourite of mine because of the feasting. I was a bit obsessed with feasts when I was a child. The snow, the feasting, the poor man gathering winter fuel, the catchy tune, all made it appeal to me. A quick Google of the actual Wenceslas reveals a picture not quite as festive, however. He was apparently assassinated by his own brother. Bah humbug. And could I also add “The Holly and the Ivy”, which has stunning imagery including running deer, woodland flora and a sunrise. It also has a wonderful chorus.”
Surprising how none of us(but me) selected modern songs as favorites. Upon reflection, the ones from mid-20th century on have a completely different feel to them. “The Little Drummer Boy” is probably the one which come closest to the older, more religious attitude, though it originates from the early 1940′s and was first a hit for the Von Trapp Family. Yes, the ‘Sound of Music’ clan. But songs such as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” or even the ubiquitous Bing Crosby hit, “White Christmas” have a very different mood. That’s not to say they detract from the festivities, just that they are more upbeat and secular in tone. In fact, the only Christmas song I really dislike is the twangy “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”, which is absolutely dreadful. If you’ve never heard it, count your blessings.
Before I close, I wanted to ask you, dear readers, to name your favorite holiday song in the comments and perhaps tell us why you like it. And above all, remember to “have yourself a merry little Christmas day…..”

Cover of 1920 Christmas song book from collection of goddess of chocolate on Flickr

12 comments on “Christmas Carols and Songs

  1. niks87
    December 12, 2011

    Grandma Got Run Over By A REINDEER?? What? That’s not a real song, surely? My favourite isn’t a carol, it’s Song for a Winter’s Night by Gordon Lightfoot. Purely because it reflects everything I love about this time of year, snuggling up out of the cold with the people you love. I’m also a sucker for a bit of Slade, it’s Chriiiiiiistmas…

  2. Hilary
    December 12, 2011

    That wooshing sound is everyone rushing to Youtube to try and find Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer …. . Curiosity is a terrible thing, though I shall try hard to count my blessings!

    Lovely start to the Christmas season, Jackie! :)

  3. littlenavyfish
    December 12, 2011

    Because I’ve been playing/singing in multiple Christmas concerts since I was 8 (and I’m 21 now), if you add these to all the rehersals before them I have been known to get a bit sick of festive music. However, ‘O Holy Night’ never fails to give a Christmassy tingle. It’s almost too beautiful. Happy Christmas, Book Foxes!

  4. Hilary
    December 12, 2011

    And Happy Christmas, littlenavyfish! We always enjoy reading your comments.

  5. Shelley
    December 13, 2011

    Very pretty post. But maybe one too many saintly s’s?

  6. Chris Harding
    December 14, 2011

    I’m with Kirsty… the Coventry Carol is so beautiful it makes my spine tingle. I head it sung one year at Lichfield Cathedral, and it was heavenly, really atmospheric.

  7. Hilary
    December 15, 2011

    I’ve added a link in the post to Britten’s setting of ‘Balulalow – hope that’s OK with you, Jackie.

  8. Jackie
    December 18, 2011

    That’s fine, Hilary! I’m probably not the only one who would like to hear it. Thanks!

  9. Kae
    December 19, 2011

    Just one? Cannot do it.

    “The Christmas Song” (commonly subtitled “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” )
    “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
    “Good King Wenceslas”
    “White Christmas”
    “Let It Snow”

    I wish I knew some of the carols mentioned by Hilary, Moira, and Kirsty. I should check them out. Loved this entry, Jackie! Your Christmas Eve tradition sounds lovely.

    Kae xxx

  10. Kae
    December 19, 2011

    I’ve been checking out some songs on youtube, and I do know Coventry Carol. And love it! I’ve heard the tune all my life, but didn’t know the title.

  11. Pingback: The History of Christmas Carols — Christmas Customs and Traditions | Four Blue Hills (A repository, of sorts)

  12. Llyn
    January 6, 2012

    I prefer my Christmas carols old, and my Christmas songs sad. Some of my favourites are:

    Carols
    Gabriel from Heaven’s King (12th century)
    “Quem Pastores
    The Sussex carol

    Songs
    Fairytale of New York (The Pogues)
    River (Joni Mitchell)

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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