The Victorians could not be said to have invented Christmas, nor were they alone in popularizing it (as we shall see). Nevertheless, t...
Reims was the site of the first French Christmas celebration when, in 496, Clovis and his 3,000 warriors were baptized. Charlemagne rece...
Deller Consort – Quid petis o fili At basically any point in English history from the Middle Ages on, people were complaining that Chri...
We write these words now, many miles distant from the spot at which, year after year, we met on that day, a merry and joyous circle. Ma...
A Middle Class Holiday? The celebration of Christmas appears to have tapered off slightly in the 18th century. Armstrong explains this ...
Wood engravers had been producing prints with a religious theme for Christmas since the Middle Ages. That was still a long way off from th...
I have discovered that The Nutcracker Ballet, more or less ingrained on my childhood Christmas, is not that big outside of the US. Jenni...
As Hanukkah is the most well-known Jewish holiday, Diwali is probably the most well-known Hindu holiday because shops and homes are lit ...
Christmas as celebrated in medieval England included carols, feasting, games, the giving of alms, the performance of miracle plays, the us...
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Between the 13th century and 1752, New Year was observed on March 25th, “Lady Day,” the Feast of the Annunciation. Scotland (as detailed on December 11) changed its New Year to January 1st in 1600, so, with the decision by the Presbyterian church that celebration of Christmas had no biblical basis, New Year’s became the principle midwinter celebration.
The First-Footing is what Crump calls “an endearing tradition” in the north of England and in Scotland. It’s based on the ancient superstition that the first person or creature to come in the door on the first day of the New Year will influence the kind of luck the household has. In Scotland, a dark-haired, tall, handsome man with a high instep is favored, as are dogs. The anonymous webmaster of Hogmanay.net suggests that the reason light-haired men are considered bad luck is a race memory of the Vikings from their adventures in Scotland in the 4th through 12th centuries. What will bring you bad luck is: women (what a surprise!), people with flat feet (I’m doubly damned then!), people with squint-eyes (triply damned!), gravediggers, doctors, and cats. People who meet the first criteria will go house by house, entering shortly after midnight, to bring good luck. They take with them handsels, which are bread, coal, salt, money, and whiskey. The person coming in places the coal on the fire, the gifts on the table, and pours a drink for the head of the house. (According to Will Forbes, the coal is so that the house will never be cold, the food--a black bun in the northeast--so that you will never go hungry.) No one is supposed to speak while this is going on, until the First-Footer pronounces a New Year’s wish of luck and prosperity. Then the host shares the gifts with everyone, especially the First-Footer. In Scotland, they may also bring shortbread, oatcakes, black bun, chocolates, or fruit. Hogmanay.net suggests that it is more likely that groups of friends now go from house to house in a first-footing ceremony.
Rise up, guid wife, an’ shake your feathers,
Dinna think that we are beggars:
We are bairns come out to play
Get up and gie’s our Hogmanay!
My feet’s cauld, my shoon’s din,
Gie’s my cakes, and let me rin.
In Aberdeenshire, a newborn baby who gave three “greets” at the New Year was expected to live a long and healthy life. In many places in Scotland it was considered unlucky to marry during the first 12 days of the New Year.
“But surely you can’t have had a good New Year if you can remember it.” --Response of a correspondent on being asked for Hogmanay memories, from Hugh Douglas’ The Hogmanay Companion
The word for the Scottish New Year celebrations is of unknown origin. It might come from French; from Homme est né (“Man is born,” describing Christmas), aguillaneuf (a New Year’s gift), or hoguinané (the Norman dialect of aguillaneuf); or from Celtic languages: halegmonath (Anglo-Saxon for “holy month”), oge maiden (Gaelic for “New Morning”). Or it could come from further afield: hagmena (Greek for “holy moon”); hoggo-nott (Scandinavian for “night before Yule”); or hoogmindag (Flemish for “great love day”). (Each one seems less likely than the last.) New Year’s Eve is known in Gaelic as Oidhche Chaluinne, Night of the Candles.
Similar to the preparations Indian families perform for Diwali, Scottish families clean and repair their homes in the weeks leading up to Hogmanay. There is an old ritual to fumigate homes with juniper berries to purge evil. On Hogmanay, the host sets food and drink before all guests. This might include shortbread, black bun, cherry cake, plum cake, sultana cake, seed cake, oatcakes, or clootie dumpling (cake with raisins and dumplings). The drink might be het pint or Athollbrose (made of oatmeal, whiskey, cream, honey, and eggs—doesn’t sound too dissimilar from syllabub, see December 12). Or for the teetotallers, ginger wine (made of lemon, oranges, sugar, and ginger).
4 pints mild ale
½ pint Scottish whisky
Sugar to taste
Grate a nutmeg into two quarts of the ale and bring it to a boil. Mix a little cold ale with sugar necessary to sweeten this, and three eggs, making sure they don’t curdle. Pour in ½ pint whisky, bring it nearly to a boil, and then pour from one vessel to another until it becomes smooth and bright.
Some countries like Bulgaria have the custom of children tapping adults with decorated poles to give good luck and health (think of the Hunting of the Wren, see December 9). There is a similar custom on the islands of Lewis and South Uist. Boys bearing sticks enter homes and chant Gaelic rhymes. The leader wears a sheepskin and walks clockwise around a chair while others tap the sheepskin with their sticks. Presumably this is carried out in a room that’s been cleared of most of its furniture, as it now becomes a health and safety nightmare. The leader singes his sheepskin and everyone has a whiff of the smoke for good luck (ewww). Then the hosts give them oatcakes or else they get cursed.
In the larger cities of Scotland, the Hogmanay celebrations have become ticketed events with sponsored concerts, street parties, ceilidh (pronounced “kayleh”) dancing, and torchlight processions. There are also many sporting events on New Year’s Day, including the Huskies at Holyrood (a sled-dog race). People also take “dooks” (dunks) into freezing rivers. A curious custom is that of the Kirkwall Ba’ Game played by men in the city of Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands. It has been played there in its present form since 1850. The object of the game is for Doonies (those born north of St Magnus Cathedral) and Uppies (those born south, naturally) to try to move a hard, cork-filled leather ball to a goal, with 200 or more fellow players. According to medieval legend, this game came from a man from Kirkwall slaying a regional tyrant, decapitating the head and tying it to his saddle. He then accidentally cut himself on the head’s tooth, got infected, and died. So the people of the town kicked the head through the streets in revenge. That sounds like the Scots!
In Herefordshire in the early 20th century, there was a “Burning of the Bush.” The bush was made of hawthorn and mistletoe and hung in the kitchen from one New Year’s Day to the next. In London in 1987, a new event was called the Lord Mayor of Wesminster’s Big Parade, which is now known as the New Year’s Parade—London. It is the world’s largest
In Wales, there is the tradition of the calenigg (small gift) which comes from Kalends (see December 1). Welsh children would take water and evergreen branches and go door to door singing carols and anointing friends’ faces with water. They would receive in turn coins. Sometimes they gave out good luck charms, caleniggs which were apples set on three sticks decorated with almonds, raisins, greenery, ribbons, and one candle wedged on top. Another curious custom that comes from Wales is that of the Mari Lwyd (the Grey Mare). This goes back to Teutonic times when horses were sometimes sacrificed to the gods. The skulls would then be placed on poles and the jaws propped open as a talisman against enemies. The Welsh custom involves operating the horse skull’s jaws by a wooden pulley, operated by a man hidden under a white sheet. The skull is bedecked with false eyes, ears and ribbons. The Mare and an entourage of black-faced men go door to door singing verses of a song competitively with the occupants. Once the occupants missed a verse in the pwnco, the men would rush in and cause mischief. Then they would want to be rewarded with food and drink.
Auld Lang Syne
“Auld Lang Syne” has gradually replaced the centuries-old “Good night an’ joy be wi’ you a’” in Scotland, and of course came to be known all over the English-speaking world. In a letter from 1788 to his friend Mrs Dunlop, Robert Burns wrote,
“ ‘Your meeting which you so well describe with your old schoolfellow and friend was truly interesting. Out upon the ways of the world! They spoil these ‘social offsprings of the heart.’ Two veterans of the ‘men of the world’ would have met with little more heart-workings than two old hacks worn out on the road. Apropos, is not the Scotch phrase Auld lang syne exceedingly expressive? There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul. You know I am an enthusiast in old Scotch songs. I shall give you the verses on the other sheet . . .”
He later claimed that he had discovered the tune from an old man’s singing and that it had never been in print. Adding two verses of his own in Scots dialect, he sent the song to his colleague, James Johnson. Johnson was publishing volumes of The Scots Musical Museum, as he collected Scots folk tunes. In 1796 in volume 6 appeared Burns’ piece, some 6 months after Burns’ death (there is evidence that Burns saw it in the proof stage, somewhat spoiling the tragi-ironic tone!).
Johnson had hesitated because the original melody had appeared previously in the same collection to lyrics by Allan Ramsay that went, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot / Tho’ they return with scars?” One source for the lyrics of the Burns piece might be a folk ballad of 1568, “Auld Kyndnes Forgett.” Or a poem by Sir Robert Aytton, from 1711, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, / And never thought upon.” Or a late 17th century street song, “On old long syne / On old long syne, my jo, / On old long syne: / That those canst never once reflect / On old long syne .” Today’s tune was selected by George Thomson, a tune known as “The Miller’s Wedding” or “The Miller’s Daughter” published between 1759 and 1780.
It was Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians who first played it on their New Year’s Eve radio broadcast in 1929, doing much to popularize it. It is used as a graduation song in Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan, and for funerals in Taiwan.
Customs from Other Lands
From the 18th century in the US, making calls on New Year’s Day was customary. Robert Segwick made a total of 63 calls in 5 hours in New York City. From the terms of John Adams to Herbert Hoover, annual New Year’s Day “levées” were held. In France, New Year’s is a time for exchanging presents between adults (traditionally, only children receive presents at Christmas) and New Year’s cards. Friends also have dinner parties and eat rich fare. It is also amusing to note that the original New Year in the French calendar, using the Old Calendar, would have been, as we discussed, the Annunciation. Therefore, a joke was made that people were still receiving New Year’s gifts, rather late, on April 1st. This is why April 1st became April Fool’s Day, or Poisson d’Avril. In France, a big deal is made of it, with paper fishes being taped to people’s backs and the shop windows full of giant chocolate fishes. Did you know that the Times Square ball is made of Waterford crystal and that it was a tradition that began in 1907? Did you know that in some southern states, it is considered good luck to eat black-eyed peas and ham hocks (“Hoppin’ John”)? Finally, in some South American countries, the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes on the stroke of midnight for good luck is still practiced.
There is a hilarious description of American New Year’s at this Australian website: http://www.fathertimes.net/traditions.htm
Friday, December 23, 2011
The History of Nutcrackers
I knew, of course, that The Nutcracker came from the E.T.A Hoffmann short story—nevertheless, I had never read it and didn’t realize what an eventful trip the ballet had from commissioning to the present. All productions share a few plot elements: “a tree must grow, mice have to fight, snow will fall, and candy ends up dancing” (4). Many productions end (though the original does not) with Clara leaving her fantasyland and waking up in her bed. Many people have problems with the plot (or lack thereof).
If you’ve forgotten some of the plot, read a short version here:
There isn’t enough documentation to reproduce the first production at the Maryinksy Theatre in St Petersburg, 1892; original choreography by Lev Ivanov has survived in bits and pieces. The story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” was from 1816 and was simplified by Ivan Vsevolozhsky from a French translation. Marius Petipa was the original choreographer before his assistant had to step in. He gave Tchaikovsky a shopping list of elements he wanted in the ballet. Due to various disappointments and the death of his sister Sasha, Tchaikovsky felt unhappy while writing the ballet. Nevertheless, by the time he had finished the score, he felt satisfied with it. It’s well-documented, too, that he wrote many parts of the ballet around the celesta, a miniature piano that gives the Sugar Plum Fairy her distinctive sound. He discovered the instrument in Paris and immediately wanted to include it in the score. In the spring of 1892, he conducted a program at St Petersburg Musical Society and included the Nutcracker Suite, which was extremely popular.
The premiere took place as a double-bill with the opera Iolanthe. Reviews were mixed, but the bad ones were extreme in their vitriol. One critic called it “a ballet produced primarily with children for children.” The dancer playing the Sugar Plum Fairy, Antonietta Dell’Era, was called “corpulent” and “podgy.” The libretto in particular was panned. After 1893, the ballet disappeared until 1909. It was re-choreographed in 1919 by Alexander Gorsky and by Fedor Lupkhov in 1929, and then by the Kirov (Vasily Vaironen, 1934) and the Bolshoi (Yuri Grigorovich, 1966). Various Russian ex-pats took bits and pieces of it with them during performances in Paris in the 1920s. By the 1930s, a partial Nutcracker had been staged in Canada. In 1934, a London production was based on the notation score, so called itself more “authentic.”
A 1940s-‘50s US tour by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo offered a “condensed” version of the original. The first full-length version was performed in the US by William Christensen in 1944 for the San Francisco Ballet. George Balanchine popularized it in 1954 at the New York City Ballet. Furthermore, the sequence in the 1940 film Fantasia “envisioned [it] by Disney [as] a literal fairy
Archetype & Canvas
In any case, it brings us back to the central nexus of The Nutcracker: “is it ‘high’ art, popular spectacle, festival-like fun, hackneyed tripe, just a way to earn money, or a resonant experience?” (184). I remember my friends who were dancers in The Nutcracker took it as seriously as any show, and unlike some people, who get really sick of hearing Nutcracker music, I find the music perennially charming and the ballet more entertaining than any other ballet I’ve seen. The magic of it really appeals to the inner child, as George Balanchine recognized, and I think I empathize with Clara, who dreams of this magical world but in the end returns home to reality and a family Christmas.
I wonder why it has caught on so massively in the US and not elsewhere? In Britain, productions are much harder to find (though I did see a big tour bus recently of Russian dancers expressly touring The Nutcracker). Are North Americans just really susceptible to its saccharine charms? Or perhaps the immigrant component, the fact that it seems deeply rooted in an Old World, nullifies its appeal in Europe?
“History of Nutcrackers.”
Thursday, December 22, 2011
The triptych shows a family toasting, which was not popular with those from the Temperance movement. It was printed on hard cardboard and the card is about the size of a modern postcard. The inscription says, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You!” It sold for a shilling each, and Cole sold nearly 1,000, of which between a dozen and 20 remain in good condition—in 2005, one sold at auction for £8,500. Nevertheless, this was certainly beyond the means of an average working person, and cards remained a luxury item. Charles Goodall & Sons were the first printing press to produce the cards commercially. “In 1866 Mr. Josiah Goodall commissioned Messrs. Marcus Ward & Co., of Belfast, to lithograph, for his firm, a set of four designs by C. H. Bennett, and in the following year another set by the same artist. These, together with Luke Limner's border design of holly, mistletoe, and robins, may be taken as the forerunners of today’s Christmas card” (Haug).
In 1880, a London firm offered the extravagant prize of 500 guineas to writers and artists to create the most successful Christmas card. Artists like Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane, and Thomas Crane created beautiful work for such an occasion.
Jane Austen’s World blog.
“A Theory of Christmas.”
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
“Yet the twentieth century has seen the increasing dominance of a Christmas
which is essentially Anglo-Saxon, or more accurately, Anglo-American” (Golby
Comedian Spike Milligan recalled the Army and Navy Christmas catalogue which arrived 3 months ahead of time, at his father’s army cantonment in India. This 3-month vigil changed when the first delivery of Christmas airmail came in 1931 to Australia and New Zealand. By 1933, the Lord Mayor of London was urging British housewives to make “the coming Christmas an Empire Christmas” (ie, to buy products from the colonies).
1926 was also the beginning of the BBC tradition of Reverend Barnard Walker’s nativity play Bethlehem, which was an adaptation of a Chester miracle play. It was so popular that it was broadcast every Christmas for 9 years. Also invented on radio was the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, based on a Truro service from 1880. It was received immediately at King’s College Cambridge was an ancient custom in 1918. The BBC took it up in 1928, and it was broadcast on MBS in the US in 1938.
(This might be a relevant place to mention Amahl and the Night Visitors, which I know some of you love. I enjoyed it when seeing a live performance in Albuquerque. As the first opera written for TV, it enjoyed perennial popularity in the first years of the ‘50s after it was shown on NBC. Here is a link to the score in prose form. http://www.christophervandyck.com/o/story/amahl ] You can also find it on YouTube.
Hollywood and the Second World War
One film from 1940 that works rather better as a screwball comedy than a Christmas heart-warmer is Remember the Night, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who steals a bracelet at Christmastime. The consequences of charming the DA on the case leads her to his hometown Christmas celebrations and provides the impetus for her reform. Remember the Night extols the virtues of small-town America, while The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941) criticizes it as a narrow-minded backwater.
Holiday Inn (1942) gushes escapism; a morale-booster. “Its dream of an idyllic and old-fashioned Christmas became the cornerstone of many Christmas films that followed in its wake” (65). “White Christmas,” the smash-hit of the film, is the only song sung twice. Irving Berlin won an Oscar for it and it inspired White Christmas (1954), which ironically summons up nostalgia for wartime. “ ‘White Christmas’ has no dark side” (Restad 166). Meet Me in St Louis (1944) breaks the pattern somewhat, being set at the turn-of-the-century and having been tailored for a predominantly female audience. The male characters are notable mainly for their absence. Its lesson is that the nuclear family is sacred; the father in the story has to reject “the modern and urban world.”
I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) sounds like a rather sobering story for Christmas. It was based on a radio play in which two felons, one male and one female, are on furlough for the holiday season. There is “a sense that Mary and Zack represent the couple of the future, the postwar couple who will have to put their wartime experiences behind them and begin life anew” (71). Somewhere between the winter wonderland of Holiday Inn and the snarkiness of The Man Who Came to Dinner is Christmas in Connecticut (1945), in which the characters defy gender stereotypes. The heroine is an inept homemaker who is masquerading as a kind of proto-Martha Stewart and has to face up to this deception when she is sent to an idyllic country house for Christmas and accompanied by the hero, who turns out to be the “new man” who can take care of babies and help around the house. Their romance is the result of sharing seasonal activities.
• Over twice the quantity of wines and spirits are bought in Britain between October and December than any other quarter.
• The mathematical formula for the total number of gifts given in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (as they are cumulative) on any one day when N is a particular day out of the 12, the total number of gifts given on that day= N(N+1)(N+2)/6 Since 1984, the PNC Wealth Management has maintained the Christmas Price Index, which gives the price of each year’s partridge in a pear tree, et al.
• The first Advent calendars were from the 19th century, roughly the 1850s. Before that, the German Lutherans lit a new candle each day of Advent or hung up a new religious image, or even marked a line in chalk on the door of the house. If candles were used, they were mounted on a device called the Advent clock. The first printed calendars came from Hamburg, from 1902 or 1903, by a printer named Gerhard Lang. During the Second World War, the manufacture of Advent calendars ceased as cardboard was rationed. After the war they regained popularity. Chocolate-filled ones were available by 1958.
The reindeer is the only deer that can be domesticated. The Finns once measured distance in terms of how far a reindeer could run without having to stop to pee. A Poronkusema is a measurement between 7-10 km. Female reindeer are only females of any species of deer that have horns. One reindeer can pull twice its body weight up to 40 miles. Vegetarians by choice, they will eat anything from eggs to shed antlers. Male reindeer lose antlers in the winter, only females and castrated males keep them. Oh dear . . .
“The Christmas Song”
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack frost nipping at your nose
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.
Christmas at the End of the Century
Norman Rockwell’s art and J.C. Leyendecker’s drawings for the covers of the Saturday Evening Post were very influential and always tended to be Victorian or medieval scenes, hearkening back to a Christmas nostalgia. “It has been suggested that the family is celebrated so earnestly at Christmas precisely because it is under threat” is one opinion (Golby 94). Christmas journalism in the UK still focuses on the Royal Family. We have little idea how the majority of people in Britain were spending their time at 8 pm in 1884, but at the same time 100 years later, over 70% of the population were watching TV, and almost 40% were watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, let us not be too quick to judge ourselves: there is little public transport in Britain or public places that are open, so there is little reason to go outside. 1912 was the last year in which newspapers were published on Christmas Day, and the majority of the outdoor communal sporting events that used to be a big fixture of Christmas past in the UK do not exist.
Rowana Agajanian examined Hollywood Christmas films from the 1980s and 1990s. According to this scholar, A Christmas Story (1983), with its infinitesimal degree of religious sentiment, demonstrated that this era’s films had their own “musical iconography.” Lethal Weapon (1987) “wastes no time in suggesting something sinister is afoot, for even before the opening credits roll we see the reflection of Christmas lights appear in the cocaine mirror of the first victim” (156). She sees Die Hard (1987) as pro-family and pro-Christian, as it’s about “wish fulfillment [and] being given a chance to prove one’s worth” (157). Of Home Alone she says that although the violence was critiqued by critics, the film also “critiques the American way of life particularly in its promotion of affluence and material goods” (150). Jingle All the Way (1996) is criticized for, well, everything.
In 2010, the Evangelical Alliance (in the UK) reported predictions of Christmas sales forecast to hit £68.7 billion, compared to £67.84 billion in 2009, a year-on-year increase of £860 million. They also found that the Royal Mail had expected to handle 700 million Christmas cards and 40 million parcels from Internet shoppers. In its research, it found that 41% of toys and presents given to children at Christmas would be broken by March. 90% of parents in 2007 expected to spend £500 on their children that year! Also, according to its findings, almost 90% of children under 18 would be willing to receive fewer presents if it decreased the financial strain on their parents. Almost 2/3 of children polled saved an average of £34 in pocket money in order to buy gifts for their family. Of children polled, 89% were excited about the impending season, 79% were happy about the holiday period, but one in six said they felt sad, nervous or left out at Christmas. 54% of adults surveyed said they felt Christmas was overrated.
Christmas: A Social History.
National Mail Order Association.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
What is a carol? From the Greek choros, which translates as a dance, via the Latin choraula and the French carole (a ring-dance). The earliest known hymn in honor of the Nativity is “Jesus refulsit omnium” (“Jesus, Light of All the Nations”) written by St Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368).
It shone, it sparkled, it was bright
With all the stars of Christmas night,
And every child that came to see
And wonder at that shining tree
Made it more radiant, for those eyes
Lent it the joy of Paradise.
In Dulci Jubilo
This is one of the oldest and most famous of the “macaronic” carols, which means it was written in both Latin and a vernacular language (in this case, German). It has a charming story behind it. In 1328, Dominican monk Heinrich Suso (or Seus) had a vision or a dream in which jubilant angels appeared to him dancing and singing “Nun singet und seid froh” or “In Dulci Jubilo” (in sweet jubilation). The tune appeared in a manuscript from around 1400 in the collections of Leipzig University Library (along with “Joseph lieber, Joseph mein”) though the tune could be older than 1328. It was collected several times throughout the 16th century and beloved by both Catholics and Protestants alike.
John Wedderburn’s Gude and Godlie Ballatis from around 1540 is perhaps the first English translation of the tune, with others following in 1708 and 1825. Robert Lucas de Pearsall wrote in 1837, “there can be no doubt that it is one of those old Roman Catholic melodies that Luther, on account of their beauty, retained in the Protestant Service. It was formerly sung in the processions that took place on Christmas-eve, and is so still in those remote parts of Germany where people yet retain old customs” (Anderson). Both Michael Praetorius and Bach wrote settings for it.
Reverend John Mason Neale, whom we have to thank for many of our popular modern carols, reworked “In Dulci Jubilo” into English as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” in 1853 based on a rare copy of a Latin book given to him by a friend. Neale was a Cambridge-educated cleric whose poor health (and theological wranglings with the traditional Church) forced him into semi-seclusion in East Grinstead, Sussex, on a very small salary. Nevertheless, he managed to write and translate extensively. “He was passionately fond of music, and had an exquisite ear for melody in words, but ‘he had not a note in his voice’” (Anderson). He very much was interested in re-introducing Eastern Orthodox hymns to the Anglican churchgoers. After a prominent carol collection in the 1860s was published, Neale’s version of “In Dulci Jubilo” enjoyed popularity. (Though Edward Heath disparages it as “the most horrible” version.) At a gathering of the Moravian Mission in Bethlehem, PA, in 1745 was reported to have the song sung simultaneously in 13 European and Indian languages.
Because I love the sound of bells
I haunt the churchyards all year long
no matter where I might be traveling.
Because true holly makes me smile
I wait for Christmas just like children,
And I wait for children too.
Because September travels slow
I catch it when I can
and hold it over for another month or two.
Because this year I’m poor again
I’ve written you another Christmas poem
made with last year’s love and next year’s too.
Carol of the Bells
Some sources date this carol, “Es ist ein Ros ensprungen,” back to the 14th century. The story goes that a monk was walking in the woods at Christmastime near Trier and found a rose blooming in the snow. He took the rose back to the monastery and put it on the altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The song was dedicated to Mary, who is compared to the mystical rose praised in the Song of Solomon 2:1: “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.” It was published first in 1582 or 1588 in Gebetbuchlein des Frater Conradus.
Michael Praetorius, therefore, did not write the hymn as if often claimed but harmonized it in the version most heard today, when Protestants adopted the hymn and shifted the focus from Mary to Jesus (some sources say that Jesus was sometimes depicted as a rose in medieval iconography. See also the title of Musica Antigua de Albuquerque’s Christmas album, A Rose of Swych Vertu, which comes from a 15th century English carol, “There is no rose of swych vertu”). (Isaiah 11:1 is cited, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”) Praetorius’ Musae Sioniae was published in 1609. The melody has since been adapted by Johannes Brahms for his 1896 choral prelude. Herbert Howells’ setting has been adapted as “A Spotless Rose.” The best-known English setting is “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” by Theodore Baker.
Christmas roared through like a train
we’d waited for impatiently
as winter blew its cold
around the station’s emptiness.
We’d watched the distant lines,
pretended not to look,
and looked again, but still
it came like a surprise
trailing holly wreathes and bows,
old songs and robins perched
in snow. Passengers streamed out
and set up trees that flowered stars,
placed tables with vast feasts,
made spaces into mounds of gifts.
Meanwhile some shepherds
searched along the carriages
and found a girl in blue
who held a child in gentle quiet
as angels fluttered wings
above the platform roof.
Suddenly, with everything
packed back inside it went
like a surprise, and winter
blew its cold around
the station’s emptiness.
I Saw Three Ships
I love this byre. Shadows are kindly here.
The light is flecked with travelling stars of dust,
So quiet it seems after the inn-clamour,
Scraping of fiddles and the stamping feet.
Only the cows, each in her patient box,
Turn their slow eyes, as we and the sunlight enter,
Their slowly rhythmic mouths.
‘That is the stall,
Carpenter. You see it’s too far gone
For patching or repatching. My husband made it,
And he’s been gone these dozen years and more…’
Strange how this lifeless thing, degraded wood
Split from the tree and nailed and crucified
To make a wall, outlives the mastering hand
That struck it down, the warm firm hand
That touched my body with its wandering love.
‘No, let the fire take them. Strip every board
And make a new beginning. Too many memories lurk
Like worms in this old wood. That piece you’re holding –
That patch of grain with the giant’s thumbprint –
I stared at it a full hour when he died:
Its grooves are down my mind. And that board there
Baring its knot-hole like a missing jig-saw –
I remember another hand along its rim.
No, not my husband’s and why I should remember
I cannot say. It was a night in winter.
Our house was full, tight-packed as salted herrings –
So full, they said, we had to hold our breaths
To close the door and shut the night-air out!
And then two travellers came. They stood outside
Across the threshold, half in the ring of light
And half beyond it. I would have let them in
Despite the crowding – the woman was past her time –
But I’d no mind to argue with my husband,
The flagon in my hand and half the inn
Still clamouring for wine. But when trade slackened,
And all out guests had sung themselves to bed
Or told the floor their troubles, I came out here
Where he had lodged them. The man was standing
As you are now, his hand smoothing that board –
He was a carpenter, I heard them say.
She rested on the straw, and on her arm
A child was lying. None of your crease-faced brats
Squalling their lungs out. Just lying there
As calm as a new-dropped calf – his eyes wide open,
And gazing round as if the world he saw
In the chaff-strewn light of the stable lantern
Was something beautiful and new and strange.
Ah well, he’ll have learnt different now, I reckon,
Wherever he is. And why I should recall
A scene like that, when times I would remember
Have passed beyond reliving, I cannot think.
It’s a trick you’re served by old possessions:
They have their memories too – too many memories.
Well, I must go in. There are meals to serve.
Join us there, Carpenter, when you’ve had enough
Of cattle-company. The world is a sad place,
But wine and music blunt the truth of it.
2. “O Adonai et dux domus Israel . . .” (“O Lord and leader of the house of Israel”)
3. “O Radix Jesse qui stas in signum populorum. . .” (“O Root of Jesse who stood as a standard of the people”)
4. “O Clavis David et sceptrum domus . . .” (“O Key of David and scepter of our home”)
5. “O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae . . .” (“O Dayspring, splendor of eternal light”)
6. “O Rex gentium et desideratus . . .” (“O longed-for King of the nations”)
7. “O Emmanuel, rex et legifer noster . . .” (“O Emmanuel, our king and law-giver”)
Hail Earendel, brightest of angels,
over Midgard to men sent,and true
radiance of the Sun bright above the stars, every season
thou of thyself
THE COUNTERPOINT OF CAROLS
Now softly come the minstrels
heads bowed into hymnals
caroling for cookies and safe smiles.
We owe them more than candy
for the redness of their ears alone.
Faint footsteps down the hill and gone,
there music dying through the trees
as back to Bach we go
on phonographs and radios.
The needlepoint of patchwork quilts,
the counterpoint of carols.
Novembers come and gone too soon
there are so many quarrels
that we haven’t finished,
and they might lessen
in the January rain.
Quarrel in December?
November comes up every year.
This Christmas comes but once.
I am not master of the holly,
nor are you mistress to the fire.
Still, together we’re the Christmas people
and dancing down the year end has its merits.
We can fire our memories as the Yule logs burn
and give away our secrets
each in turn.
Never mind what Whitman said,
proud music of the storm never kept the
lovers each to each do that—
they know that wars don’t work
Merry then and Allelujah too,
I love you just as much as I love Christ.
He opened up my life for me.
You unlocked the final door.
“I Wonder As I Wander”
This 20th century carol was collected in 1933 by John Jacobs Niles in Murphy, Cherokee County, NC. He learned it from Annie Morgan, whom he made sing it repeatedly until he had memorized it. He published it in 1934 in Songs of the Hill-Folk. Carl Rütti’s arrangement is the most well-known and recorded.
When snow is shaken
From the balsam trees
And they're cut down
And brought into our houses
When clustered sparks
Of many-colored fire
Appear at night
In ordinary windows
We hear and sing
The customary carols
They bring us ragged miracles
And hay and candles
And flowering weeds of poetry
That are loved all the more
Because they are so common
But there are carols
That carry phrases
Of the haunting music
Of the other world
A music wild and dangerous
As a prophet's message
Or the fresh truth of children
Who though they come to us
From our own bodies
Are altogether new
With their small limbs
And birdlike voices
They look at us
With their clear eyes
And ask the piercing questions
God alone can answer.
Bring Your Torch, Jeanette, Isabella
Deck the Halls
Soon the hoar old year will leave us [Fa la la etc]
But the parting must not grieve us [Fa la la etc]
When the new year comes tomorrow [Fa la la etc]
Let him find no trace of sorrow. [Fa la la etc]
MICE IN THE HAY
out of the lamplight
the mice in the hay
timid eye pearl-bright
whisking quick and away
they were there that night
smaller than snowflakes are
quietly made their way
close to the manger
yes, they were afraid
as the journey was made
from a dark corner
But He smiled to see them
there in the lamplight
stretched out His hand to them
they saw the baby king
hurried back out of sight
Ding Dong Merrily on High
Much as I love this carol and associate it with Little Women, the lyrics were written around 1924 by George Ratcliff Woodward, making their inclusion in that film a bit of an anachronism! The tune itself, however, is quite old, and a carol in the sense of a secular dance tune, the original meaning of “carol.” “Branle de l’Officiel” is one of many tunes collected in Orchésographie, a dance book written by Johan Tabourot (1519-93). At the time, it was a song for servants to dance to, and sometimes gentlemen and women if they were playing the part of peasants and shepherds (presumably in a masque or a ballet). Anderson suggests that the best English translation of the title is “The Servants’ Brawl.”
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Silver Bells” is another of my absolute favorites (can you tell I like songs about bells?). Unlike many 20th century Christmas songs, it has an urban setting, the unique ¾ time signature, and an unusual counterpoint between the chorus and verse. It was written in 1950 by the songwriting team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. During this 64-year collaboration, this remained one of their greatest hits. In 1950, they were under contract with Paramount and had been assigned a Bob Hope film called The Lemon Drop Kid. The studio wanted an Oscar-quality hit Christmas song, but the writers balked. They were eventually inspired by a bell in their office and were originally going to call the song “Tinkle Bell,” until Livingston’s wife reminded him “tinkle” had another connotation. They put the song away for some time but eventually finished it. The producer loved it, and before the film’s release Bing Crosby came by their lunch table at Paramount and ended up recording it himself before the release of the film. This was a big boost for Evans and Livingston. Evans, in retrospect, appreciated the irony of the song’s success considering he was a Jew and a non-believer. Oh well, it’s a pretty song!