Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Christmas Past: Music

Last night C made dinner at his apartment, and while he was cooking he played Christmas music recorded by an artist named Sufjan Stephens. It’s a toss-up whether you’ve heard of the guy or not. He’s young, alternative, and writes interesting songs with titles that sound like lines from Walt Whitman. His current project is a series of albums commemorating the fifty states, one at a time.

Sufjan's holiday songs were a mix of traditional and original, and when he launched into "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" I started thinking about how important the muscial aspect of Christmas has always been to me.

As with so much else, I get it from my parents. Our stereo was played year-round, but Christmas music (even secular stuff by Bing Crosby) was a specialty only available from December 1 to Epiphany. Having to wait for it made it that much sweeter.

To this day, I cannot bring myself to play an album of carols at any other time of year, and the sound of “Silver Bells” coming over department store muzak in early November makes me cringe.

(In her own blog, my sister wrote that she broke the embargo early this year. I fear for her soul.)

I’ve written repeatedly what a weird child I was, and my taste in Christmas music was no exception. According to David Sedaris in “The Santaland Diaries,” most of the little kids who were asked to name a favorite Christmas song chose “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Not me. I eagerly awaited Rudolph’s annual animated special on television, but I didn’t like the title song. Too folksy. It pandered to the peanut gallery.

In first grade, preparing for a school Christmas pageant, I got into trouble for refusing to sing it. The music teacher took me aside and admonished me for folding my arms and pursing my lips instead of shouting “Like a lightbulb!” with proper enthusiasm and correct hand gestures. I told her it made me feel silly. She told me it wouldn’t kill me to act like a normal boy for three minutes.

We finally compromised on shouting, with no hand gestures, but only after she threatened to report me to Santa Claus. Bitch.

When allowed to choose my own music, I gravitated to stuff that sent chills up my spine. This generally meant ancient carols, usually in minor keys, sung by choirs. “The Holly and the Ivy,” in other words, instead of “Frosty the Snowman.”

Half the time I didn’t even understand all the words of the songs, I just liked how they sounded, and felt in my mouth when I sang along. I loved lying on the living room rug, on my back, with my eyes closed, head under the Christmas tree, floating away on the music.

The first carol that I can remember listening to ad nauseam was the “Coventry Carol,” which we had in two versions: a choir whose name I don’t know, on one of those gigantic multi-LP collections one used to be able to buy; and John Denver on his Rocky Mountain Christmas album.
Lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day,
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Nobody I knew in Tucson, Arizona in the early 70s used words like "youngling." Maybe that’s why I liked it. And I remember thinking it sounded like music you would really sing to a baby to put it to sleep, holding it in your arms and swinging it gently back and forth. I sang it to Raggedy Ann. I sang it to my baby sister. Both fell asleep.

I read the liner notes of the albums to try to find out more about it, but there was nothing but a title. I finally decided that it was so old that maybe Mary had actually sung it to Jesus in the stable when the mooing from the cows was keeping him awake.

When I finally realized the last verses were about Herod killing the innocent children, I decided she added that bit later, when they were living in Egypt.

I had no evidence that this was so, but the idea was pretty so for many years I chose to believe it. (And there, in one sentence, you have the story of my life.)

We also had a choral recording of “I saw three ships come sailing in,” which I loved for the melody, and for the lines that always sent chills up my spine:
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas Day, On Christmas Day.
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas Day in the morning.
You must remember that I was perhaps six years old, and living in mid-1970s America. Christmas, to me, was a universal phenomenon; so I took this line literally. In my own family, Christmastime was so wonderful that I assumed it must be so for everyone. I knew there was poverty, and suffering, and war, but I truly thought that on Christmas Day it all stopped for twenty-four hours. And I was certain that on the morning of that day, bell ringers would go into churches all over the world and ring the bells.

I liked that idea, of everybody being happy together for at least one day.

I still like it, actually. I’m just far less certain of it ever being achieved.
Then peal the bells more loud and deep,
God is not dead, nor does he sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.


Unknown said...

What lovely memories. You were lucky to have such special parents, as I was as well. We had the same rule in our house and I don't listen to Christmas music until the first Sunday in Advent, a big, big German Lutheran event.

My favorite carol as a child was "Lo, How a Rose 'Ere Blooming" by Pretorius. And you are quite right about minor key carols--those are the ones that I love as an adult. I never liked the goofy kid songs either although I wasn't quite the rebel you were. I sang 'em but I hated it.

I still love Christmas. The wonder and thrill is still there and I hope it always will be. Music makes it so.

Jean said...

"I had no evidence that this was so, but the idea was pretty so for many years I chose to believe it."

Until quite late in life, I thought that was what "apochriphal" meant, but it doesn't (and it's probably not spelled right, either). Si non e vero, e ben trovato is about the closest we can get.

Do you know the Advent hymn, Lucis Creator Optime? sung at Vespers this time of year? That's the one that sends shivers down my spine.

Love, Jean

Sneaksleep said...

OK, you just made me cry. For real. At work. I guess that's what I get for reading blogs on my lunch hour. Anyway, thank you for sharing those memories. And I totally agree about Rudolph vs. Coventry Carol. No contest. Other favorites (aside from the ones you mentioned) are Good King Wenceslaus (sp?), O Holy Night, and most especially In the Deep Midwinter. Time to go spend my iTunes birthday money...

Susan said...

Ok, so I know it isn't a "pretty carol" sort of song (at least not the version we had on that miscellaneous musical collection you mentioned), but did you not have a fabulous time with our renditions of "Go Tell it on the Mountain"? That remains a favorite of mine to this very day, probably for the fun we had with it. I mean shoot! We choreographed that one! My other favorite from that medley of songs was "Ave Maria." And I'm still quite partial to "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."

Carol said...

Vivaldi's Gloria in D. The beginning sends chills down my spine. How about Bring A Torch, Jeanette, Isabella? a demented French teacher taught us that. In French, bien sur.

Well said, Franklin. From your mouth to God's ears.

goblinbox said...

I adore the Coventry Carol. I was once a professional Christmas caroller, you know.

Anonymous said...

I finished reading that feeling peaceful, calm, and hopeful. Thank you.


Anonymous said...

I love Christmas music of all kinds, but with a brother who was in a church choir, and then being in a children's chorus myself for 8 years I had the opportunity to sing, and listen to some truly glorious music. The choral Evensong at the Cathedral on Christmas Eve is still one of the true highlights of the season for me.

I will admit to being partial to 'I want a hippopotamus for Christmas' now though. Great for singing in the shower.

Anonymous said...

I Saw Three Ships was always my favorite, too. Somehow, even before I was old enough to know, I always pictured this Spanish harbor whenever I heard that song.

Must have been around 1970, I remember my parents turning on the news, and realizing that they hadn't called off the war for the holiday. I was stunned.

M-H said...

Oh Franklin... I didn't discover "I heard the bells on Christmas Day" until I was an adul and bought a Carol bool published int he US. It will always move me more than any other, although I have never found a recording of it. "It came upon a midngiht clear" comes a close second.

Ruth said...

There was such a Christmas once, during WWI ... the last surviving veteran of the Christmas Day Truce died just last month ( I'd always loved that story, but assumed it was a myth ... turns out that it really happened.

Be-boppy Christmas songs are fun, but it's the old carols and hymns that send chills down my spine. And Handel's Messiah never fails to stir my soul.

Ashley said...

Beautiful post, Frankiln. I'm not above some Dean Martin holiday shmaltz (and Bing Crosby's Adeste Fideles is my iconic childhood Christmas memory), but it is those old English and French minor-key carols that I turn to now when I'm feeling most Grinchly, and they never fail to stir something in me.

Anonymous said...

I still love I Saw Three Ships and The Holly and the Ivy, and also the one that begins The Virgin washes the swaddling. I love those archaic words. Modern carols just can't cut it.

Valerie said...

Thank you for the beautiful reminiscence, Franklin. Christmas was (and is) about music, especially hymns, in my family. (We're German Lutherans, too, like Marilyn. Goes with the territory.)

Thanks to you and Marilyn, I think, for introducing me to the Boston Camerata. It's on my iPod right now.

Carol said...

Okay, if I wanted to download some of these from Itunes, how would I know whose version to pick?

Anonymous said...

Great post Franklin! I'm often the church organist in my small hometown when I return to visit; my favorite time to play is at the Christmas eve candlelight service which always begins with 20 minutes of organ music filling the dark sanctuary. I will do it this year with new energy having read all of these comments, apprecitating more the importance such music has for folks. Thanks everyone!

City Wiccan said...

You like all the same carols that I do. I really also like, "Once in Royal David's City". It always reminds me of starting the Christmas carol sing in churches. I used to be a church music director (organist) too for quite a few years. I liked arranging the carol sing evenings. Too bad I don't do it anymore.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

dragon knitter said...

i never heard anything unusual until i was an adult (my parents were deaf, so all i got were the traditional chestnuts from sunday school and school). i have a cd called the bells of dublin, by the chieftains (they do some of the song, but most are by other artists) 3 ships is on that cd, and it's one of my favorites. now, my favorite of all on that cd is elvis costello : The St STephen's day murders. it's a riot! there's also Rebel Jesus, and a french tune (i don't know the words, but since i've heard it so much, when it plays, i can sing along (i dont' speak french, lol). i think holly and ivy is on there as well, but i'm not sure. it has a celtic lilt to it, for sure.

i love christmas music, wish they'd play some more eclectic stuff on the radio

dan said...

Well, I have a few songs that make me choke up, even tho I really don't do Christmas much anymore (more like it *does* me each year). I have to say I'm a bit partial to Barbra Streisand's Ave Maria off her Christmas album. Its the Gounod version and I preferred it to the more famous version. I can't say why I love it except perhaps I could tell even at a wee age how insane it was that a nice Jewish girl like Barbra was singing in an all Christmas album. Life is crazy sometimes. I just might have to blog this.

Anonymous said...

I had no evidence that this was so, but the idea was pretty so for many years I chose to believe it.
I think that's the story of pretty much everyone's life. I still can't decide if I believe in God or choose to believe, and what difference it makes. What I know is that on a brilliantly clear morning like this, with the sky turning yellow over the pine woods, I can't help thinking, "Coeli et terra pleni sunt gloriae Tuae." (Yes, I really do think it in Latin, don't ask me why.)

I love "Lo How a Rose" and "Good King Wenceslas". And a few years ago my DH set this
for four-part chorus. I've heard it only once, which is a pity.

Anonymous said...

I sang the Coventry Carol at school, many years ago. Our conductor told the audience what it was about before we sang it, and not one parent wasn't welling up while our little 8-year-old voices offered up perfect squeaky minor harmonies. Them were t'days...

LornaJay said...

Agreed. Sometimes the old ones are the best. For modern stuff which I've enjoyed singing and listening to, try Rutter. I was at school with his kids, and we sang a lot of his stuff at church long before I knew he was famous.

OK, so a lot of purists object to the 'heart on sleeve' character of some of his stuff, but as a singer it's very satisfying indeed.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I thought I was the only one who thought everyone got to celebrate Xmas in peace. I cried the first time I actually saw a newsreport on Xmas day and they were talking about some war somewhere.

dpaste said...

When I was younger, in choirs or at caroling parties, I would always stop singing when the phrase "Christ our Lord" or something similar popped up. It felt sacriligious to me, being Jewish. I neither believed it nor felt it proper for someone of another religion to state a tenant a faith hollowly.

I got over that when I decided they were just words. Intention gave them meaning, not their simple verbalization.

I like some of the classics, like "The First Noel" and "Silent Night." I'm also partial to EL&P's "I Believe in Father Christmas."

I never believed in 24 hours of peace. Certainly not on Christmas. My people suffered to many pogroms on that day.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only person with "Santa Baby" in the "Top 10" list?

As a harpsichordist, I admit to a preference for the classical stuff pre-1800. Some of the folk music is so closely tied to (modern interpretations of) Medieval and Rennaisance sounds that I like that as well. The CD "Bright Day Star" by the Baltimore Consort is in my "Top 10".

KiwiJames said...

I always associate memories with music and Christmmas is no exception. Here in New Zealand we re-wrote the twelve days of Christmas to include local icons hence it became and a Pukeko in a Punga tree. There is even a version of it in the Maori language. For a modern twist I always love to hear Michael Ball's "Driving home this Christmas" because each year I do make the six hour drive home to my parents house for Christmas. Apart from that everything always sounds better with a full orchestra for accompaniment.

Anonymous said...

Since you already have a new blog entry, perhaps this comment will be lost in the ether, but I'm going to write it anyhow: I go back and forth about the existence of a deity. The thing that most consistently convinces me that there is, is music, the kind of music you seem to prefer, that resonates one's heart and voice like a tuning fork.

Zardra said...

I love minor key christmas carols... my favorite is In the Bleak Mid-winter. But I'm also a fan of I Saw Three Ships Sailing.

Anonymous said...

I share your scorn for Ruldoph and Frosty. I loathe my daughter's piano teachers -- every year, we seem to get to hear ANOTHER, slightly more complex than last year's, version of Rudolph.

I too love The Holly and the Ivy. And Lully lullay is one of my very favoritest carols.
I sang my own version of it to my kids as a lullaby (including lines like "tis time for sleep" in places of othe lyrics.

Yesterday, for the first time, I heard the Herod verse.

I hop emy children won't learn of it until they're very much adults. I may have scarred them for life.

birdfarm said...

I feel exactly the same as you about every single word of this post. You made me cry. In a good way.

Anonymous said...

Christmas music was always traditional at my house - Anne Murray (Dad's choice) vs. Andy Williams (mom's choice). You could tell who got downstairs first on christmas morning by the tunes. But we also had wonderful music by John McCutcheon (spelling?). He plays hammer dulcimer and many other instruments and his songs are like old fashioned ballads that tell a story with words that are really paintings and music to set the mood. What made me think of it was your commentary on war. He has a song called "Christmas in the Trenches" and it is heart breaking, about the revolutionary war if I recall. But it's not in your traditional key. Just wanted to share. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

John McCutcheon's is perhaps my single favorite Christmas album, and for some reason I can't locate it this year.

"Christmas in the Trenches" is based on an actual incident in World War One. It made the news again recently because the last surviving soldier who was present there passed away at the age of 109.

kbsalazar said...

Chalk another one in your corner.

My favorite holiday songs are the traditional ones, but I also include some that are off-kilter, some that are downright strange.

For example, one of my favorite carols is actually a St. Stephen's Day song (Dec. 26) - The Hunting of the Wren (aka Cutty Wren). Steeleye Span has recorded two versions. Here are the lyrics:


But what do I know. I married the holiday rather than growing up with it.

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