The Carols of Christmas

Even as we lament the fracturing of common culture in these our modern times, Christmas carols ring out as a great national unifier. Neither the society matron nor the desperate street dweller is likely to get through this or any other Christmas season without repeated exposure to “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” or “Jingle Bells.” Just what are these pieces that so define the aural landscape of the season? Where did they come from and how did they travel from their hazy origins to reach the broadcast speakers in Walgreens at the Corner of Happy & Healthy®?

Answers arrive in abundance in Andrew Gant’s The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, just out from Nelson Books, which is an imprint of the Thomas Nelson company (itself a division of HarperCollins). Thomas Nelson is famous for being the leading publisher of the Bible, a book it currently offers in some 600 distinct formats, including the American Patriot’s Bible, the Ballerina Bible, and the Skateboard Bible (“highly designed with extreme graphics to capture the attention of boys who want a Bible that’s just a bit different from Mom and Dad’s!”). Apart from that, Nelson mostly releases titles about Bible study and Christian living, but every now and then it lets loose a book destined for the non-sectarian reader, like The Best Jokes Minnie Pearl Ever Told (2000) or Kids’ Letters to President Bush (2009).

The Carols of Christmas straddles the divide between the sacred and the profane in an appealing way. Gant writes from a position of authority; formerly the choirmaster of Worcester College, Oxford, he now serves as lecturer in music at St. Peter’s College, Oxford. He obviously knows his hymnal from the inside out, but he wears his scholarship lightly. As a species, hymnologists tend to be genial, and the best of them can seem downright allergic to piety. Most of them have spent years on the organ bench or in the choir loft, and their repetitive exposure to the behind-the-scenes travail of Holy Worship induces decreased sentimentality and heightened alertness to ecclesiastical irony. Gant appreciates that characteristic in others. About the hymnologist Erik Routley, who authored The English Carol (1959) and The University Carol Book (1961), he observes, “He is funny, humane, thoughtful, and the only writer man enough to acknowledge in print that ‘The First Nowell’ is ‘really a rather terrible tune.’ Hear, hear.” Gant proves to be no less funny, humane, and thoughtful.

The book’s Introduction offers efficient and engaging background to the topic, explaining how most of the pieces we recognize as Christmas carols evolved from cross-pollinated international roots, nearly always from songs of strictly secular import. By the 16th century, the word carol started to be “loosely applied to any song with a seasonal connection, still definitely not just Christmas.” The church enters the picture belatedly. “The liturgy, the content of divine worship,” he writes, “was prescribed by law and was no place for most of these irreverent impostors. … Carol singing used to belong in the street far more than in the pew.” But in the 19th century, clergymen took an interest in compiling and editing these pieces, adapting them for Christmas-season services and even composing new ones. As the celebration of Christmas became standardized and commercialized, so did the music to accompany it, with impressive results. “Christmas carols,” Gant writes, “are, perhaps, the nearest thing we still have to a folk tradition — an oral tradition. We know them because we know them. We never really learned them; they’ve just always been there.” 

Twenty-one Christmas songs then parade beneath his hymnological microscope, arranged in the order in which they are connected to the telling of the Christmas story, from Advent to Epiphany. All of the pieces are traditional examples, and most of them have histories that reach back centuries. (This is not the book in which to research “Frosty the Snowman” or “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”) Most of their stories are circuitous, but Gant proves a clear and cogent docent. Stroll with him through his eight pages on “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” for example, and you will come away with an appreciation of the “O Antiphons” of medieval liturgy and how the Benedictines of northern France derived them from the earlier Roman author Boethius and the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf. You will learn that the song was not published in its familiar form until the 1850s, ascribed by its editors (tantalizingly) as having been taken “from a French Missal in the National Library, Lisbon,” and how the eminent plainchant scholar Mother Thomas More (a.k.a. Dr. Mary Berry) finally stumbled across what seems to have been that very 15th-century Missal, by then housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where the familiar tune (notated in neumes) suddenly jumped off the page at her from where it had been inscribed as an added verse for a funeral litany. This is a detective tale that any musicologist would find exhilarating.

Gant’s account of “While Shepherds Watched” starts with similarly thrilling detective work. The oldest part of the melody was lifted verbatim from a setting of a text from the Acts of the Apostles made by the English composer Christopher Tye in 1553. But in Tye, we find only the back end of the melody, the part normally sung to the words “All seated on the ground,/The angel of the Lord came down/And glory shone around.”  The music of the opening phrase hooked up with Tye’s tune only later, and at the outset of the 18th century a new text got attached to it. The piece in this form, titled “Song of the Angels at the Nativity of our Blessed Saviour” was “the only Christmas carol that could legally be sung in English churches for most of the rest of the eighteenth century, which is at least partly why it caught on quite as spectacularly as it did.”

Although it is ceaselessly represented in seasonal decorations, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is probably the most despised of traditional Christmas carols — at least while it is going on, and on, and on. Gant situates this “Twelfth Night song” in the folk repertoire of counting songs, which include such familiar numbers as “This Old Man” and “Green Grow the Rushes-oh.” He gives the text a careful going-over, noting a wealth of variations. “In the very many versions found between 1780 and 1909, the first seven gifts stay pretty much the same (with the notable exception of the ‘calling birds,’ which are, variously, collie, colley, colly, Corley, curley, colored, and canary birds, most of which are terms for a blackbird). One version has ‘squabs a-swimming’ instead of swans, which are baby pigeons and can’t swim. From verse eight upward singers swap, substitute, and generally muddle up the rest of the gifts, including ‘boys a-singing,’ ‘ships a-sailing,’ ‘lads a-louping,’ instead of ‘lords a-leaping,’ ‘hounds a-running,’ and ‘badgers baiting.’ ”  A particularly fascinating “etymological diversion” (as he calls it) involves the gift that serves as the song’s anchor, the partridge in a pear tree. “According to Greek mythology, the first partridge was created when Daedalus threw his nephew off a tower. The nephew was called Perdix. The ornithological name for the Grey Partridge is Perdix perdix. The French derivation from this is perdrix.” (We might add that the French word is pronounced “per-DREE .”) He continues: “We have our pear tree. It’s a perdrix. It’s a half-remembered mistranslation, or, perhaps, a misremembered half-translation, giving us, oddly, not one partridge up a tree, but two, both on the ground. One English, one French. A partridge et un perdrix.” How cool is that? ◀

“The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs” by Andrew Gant was published by Nelson Books this year. A companion CD, in which Gant conducts the British chamber choir Vox Turturis, contains all the songs discussed in the book. Titled “Christmas Carols: From Village Green to Church Choir,” it was released in 2014 by Signum Records.

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