I love Christmas carols. HOWEVER: I do NOT love what most of the idiot world considers to be a Christmas carol. Songs about sleighs, Santa, sugarplums, etc., are NOT carols, they are garbage that deserves to rot on the side of the street like so much crumpled wrapping paper.
No, the truly best Christmas carols fall into at least one of the following categories:
1. Songs in Latin
2. Songs about food
3. Songs about Hell and/or avoidance thereof
4. Songs about decidedly non-canonical adventures of Jesus, Mary, and/or Joseph
5. Songs that use the word “flesh”
6. Good King Wenceslas
Bonus points are awarded if the song was clearly hastily Christianized with a few macaronic verses or if it sounds good played on the bagpipe.
There are only approximately 30 days of the unofficial Christmas carol listening season, and I would hate for you to waste one second of them letting an INFERIOR Christmas carol bleat through your earbuds. Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to let you know what the good ones are. This is my final decision and I will brook no dissent.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman
This is the only mainstream Christmas carol that mentions Satan, and IN THE FIRST VERSE, no less. (It was also my favorite as a kid for this self-same reason.) This is metal as heck.
The Holly and the Ivy
Two plants get uppity about which is better; also, Jesus was born. This carol gets major points for terrible rhymes (blood/good, grown/crown) which as we all know is a favorite territory of mine. I also like to think that this carol is directly responsible for the absence of ivy from conventional Christmas decorations.
The Cherry Tree Carol
If you do not know the lyrics to this one, go look them up, for verily they are BONKERS. A preggo Mary is wandering around and sees a bunch of delicious cherries growing on a tree. Being incapacitated due to her expectatory state, she asks Joseph to pick some for her, but he’s like “eh, why don’t you let the FATHER OF YOUR CHILD pick them, slut” and then Jesus FROM INSIDE THE WOMB commands the tree to reach its branches down to Mary. I’m about 70% sure this didn’t actually happen in the Bible, but it probably should have.
In the Bleak Midwinter
This one is actually really annoying and smarmy (obviously, the lyrics are by Christina Rossetti) but it DOES contain the titillating phrase “a BREAST full of MIIIIILK” at which I challenge not to snort when the tenor soloist sings it plangently. (Tenors are always singing plangently.)
Good King Wenceslas
So when I was in high school we used to sing this en masse in alternating verses using the following breakdown:
King Wenceslas: Boys
The page: Girls
But apparently they’ve done away with that tradition and now they sing it thusly:
King Wenceslas: Whoever
The page: Ehhhh
This is treason! Also, I’d always sing the boy parts anyway, because nothing is better than gruffly intoning BRING ME FLESH AND BRING ME WINE like you’re some forgotten minor monarch.
The Coventry Carol, but ONLY the “Herod the King” verse
The Coventry Carol would ordinarily get automatic disqualification for being one of the boringest kinds of Christmas carol (lullabies?! Who cares? The Incarnate Son of God has just been squeezed out onto a barn floor and you’re just going to let him GO TO SLEEP?!?), but it redeems itself with a VERY DARK third verse about infanticide. Not that I’m suggesting the Massacre of the Innocents was awesome or anything, because it very much wasn’t, but there is something super spooky and affecting about the melody of “He-ROD the KIIIIING, in hiiiis RAAAAAgiiiing,” especially if you sing it a cappella.
Edit: Some people have pointed out the the Coventry Carol is actually a dirge sung by the mothers of the slain children and not a lullaby for Jesus at all. Which is SUPER grim! Why do we even use it?! Christ, no pun intended. Anyway, I apologize for the error; I can’t believe that fact didn’t turn up during my two minutes of exhausting [sic] research.
You might know this one as “On This Day, Earth Shall Ring,” but as with every hymn, the English version is for illiterate heathens. (Sample lyrics: Blah blah blah, bells all ring, something something, we all sing! PUERILE.) It sounds infinitely more sophisticated and authoritative in Latin, and also it’s way easier to rhyme stuff. I think it’s about bells or something.
Another good Latinate one, inveighing people to REJOICE because Christ is born from the Virgin Mary. Plus, you get to sing the phrase “hoc quod optabamus” which really rolls off the tongue. (Also, this video of Anuna features LADS SINGING MERRILY IN DOUBLETS, so it comes doubly recommended.)
I Saw Three Ships
AKA the Apocryphal Nautical Adventures of Mary and Jesus! I have so many questions about this one. First: who is the narrator? Probably not one of the fisherman apostles, because Jesus is still a baby. Maybe it’s Joseph? And don’t give me one of those pat “the narrator represents the Church” answers or I will hit you. Second: how can a person be on THREE SHIPS at once? It’s like…expecting God to be at once a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or someth—okay, I get it. What I WANTED to be a tale of maritime follies with God Jr. and the Queen of Heaven is actually a belabored metaphor about the trinity. Well, whatever, it’s still a great tune.
The Boar’s Head Carol
Almost the absolute best carol ever written. Peasants carting around a dead pig noggin and then quickly remembering that Christmas is about CHRIST and working in some Latin bits. Phrases like “Let us servire cantico!” definitely sound like they came out after a few too many skins of wine, and I am 100% okay with that. Christmas is about winter and winter is about eating (and don’t be one of those “well Jesus was probably REALLY born in April” people, unless you’re going to use that point to tell Christina Rossetti she’s full of it with her “Bleak Midwinter” bullsh).
Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
I mean, just look at the first verse:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descending
Comes our homage to demand.
A-mother-fucking-men. This is a Christmas carol that does NOT mess around. Christ is coming and he wants your homage, whatever that is. (When I was a kid, we acted out the shepherds bringing homage to Jesus by putting towels on our head and depositing these burlap bags in front of the manger, so for a long time I assumed “homage” was just a bag of stuff).
It only gets creepier in the third and fourth verses, too:
Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
Comes the powers of hell to vanquish
As the darkness clears away.
At His feet the six wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Lord Most High!
JESUS VANQUISHING HELL. SIX WINGED SERAPH AND CHERUBIM THAT COULD ZAP RUDOLPH INTO VENISON WITH ONE GLANCE FROM THEIR LASER-FOCUSED SLEEPLESS EYES. Look, I know Christmas is all about celebrating the birth of Jesus as a tender human babelet, but when push comes to shove I really want a god-man who can BURN STUFF DOWN, you know? It just makes me feel way more secure in my own mortality.
Edit: A few other people (not the same people as the Coventry Carol people) have noted that this is not technically a Christmas carol, but a Eucharistic chant that became a hymn. We, being unenlightened Presbyterian dodos, always sang it at Christmas, hence its inclusion here.
And there you have it—the best songs. Feliz Navidad, or whatever, which is NOT a song I recommend.
Hey hi! If you think this post is funny (and I hope you do, otherwise please don’t leave a mean comment picking apart my theology), I wrote a YA novel you might enjoy. There are no carols but there is Latin poetry, which is equally wonky. Check it!
This list is brilliant. Have you made a YouTube playlist so we can listen to all your choices in a row automatically? :D
YouTube playlist, since I didn’t see anyone else made one:
(I assume that it’s only the basic list that’s absolute, rather than particular renditions, so if Blair has updated versions of the songs I’ll change them.)
ALSO, on the subject of the Coventry Carol — the only song in existence with my name in it (and yes, it’s Old English and means “to sleep; to soothe”) — BORING? It’s super interesting musically when you have the right version.
Here’s Howard Goodall explaining why it’s neat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAYG_mUGbtQ
The version in this list doesn’t have the ‘false relations’ thing because it’s only got one singer, but check out these many good versions that do:
(PS: That is the definitive list of the best versions of Coventry Carol on YouTube — fight me — plus the one mentioned here.)
This is awesome! Thanks! Also, I think Lulie is a great name.
On a side note: it is my theory (just invented but nevertheless heartfelt) that Christmas carols are where the Hallmarkization of angels began. Terrifying beings who could make one “sore afraid” are mischaracterized as “sweetly singing o’er the plains.” Pah!
On the other hand, one angel carol contains the command, “Sages, leave your contemplation… Seek the great desire of nations.” That is the real purpose of Christmas carols.
Nah, it was Baroque and Rococo art, with its cute, fat cherubs, that started this trend. If you want real, true, terrifying angels, read C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Or read the Bible. ;-)
Actually my personal theory is that the final blow was struck by all the Bible illustrations by Gustave Dore that became so popular in the late 19th century. But clearly there was a lot of cultural synergy.
Let All Mortal Flesh is no Christmas Carol, it’s the metrical version of the very ancient hymn sung as the bread and wine are placed on the altar during the old Liturgy of St. James. The offertory of offertories, if you will, but nonetheless a Eucharistic hymn and not Christmas. It’s also used in the Byzantine Rite on Holy Saturday, though I can’t remember if it’s the actual Holy Saturday Divine Liturgy, or the midnight Pascha (Easter) Divine Liturgy.
Fascinating! It was always a staple of the Christmas service at my church growing up, so I hope you’ll forgive my ignorance.
Liturgy of St. James is served Holy Saturday morning. (Not Easter vigil.). It’s actually used for daily liturgy in most of the Arabic-speaking world. When I started hanging with the Presbys, I was shocked when Let All Mortal Flesh was sung at Christmas! Anyway, it is from the 4th Century, thus adding to its allure & coveted spot on your list!
Yes! The older, the better, in my humble Presbyterian opinion.
Someone else beat me to it on “Let All Mortal Flesh.” It astonishes me that people don’t know that this is a Eucharistic hymn. I mean, it’s wonderful, but if you don’t happen to believe that Jesus comes down into the bread and wine, you probably should consider it semi-heretical. The angels are spreading their vanguard, etc., at the Consecration in the Mass. I suspect that Protestants get away with treating it as a Christmas song by leaving out this verse:
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.
See? Of course, it is *also* about the Incarnation, but the idea is that the Sacrament is a sort of re-enactment of the Incarnation.
One of my favourite hymns; it reminds me of the mosaics in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. To me it is very Orthodox, not Catholic at all. I am an Anglican and we don’t treat it as a Christmas hymn, nor do we omit “King of Kings yet born of Mary”.
The words aren’t, but the tune is. The traditional setting, Picardy, is a French carol from the seventeenth century–La Ballade de Jésus-Christ, a typical Christ-as-beggar narrative. Hence the conflation, perhaps?
Despite the overall irritating nature of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” I’ve always found the verses threatening continued assault on the ears unless some pudding is brought out to be quite fun.
Thank you for your list. Ditto the request for the carol with the lines “Now bring us some figgy pudding and bring it right here … We won’t go until we get some.” Also beg to include “Here We Come a Wassailing,” with its sensitive entreaty, “We are not daily beggars who roam from door to door, but we are neighbors’ children whom you have seen before.” Ah, okay. Have some punch.
Oh yes, the delightful “give us food or drink” subgenre of carol. I can definitely get behind those.
The Gloucestershire Carol is another one of these, although it at least grants that the master of the house benefit, even if he’s expected to share it:
And here is to Dobbin, and to his right eye
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie
And a good Christmas pie as may we all see
With our wassailing bowl we’ll drink unto thee.
It does fall into the ‘demands’ category later, though:
Come, butler, come fill us a bowl of your best
Then we pray that your soul in Heaven may rest.
But if you do bring us a bowl of the small
Then the devil take butler, bowl and all.
Figgy pudding! I was most dismayed recently to find out that “figgy” is not a legitimate Scrabble word. Feh. It’s good for singing and good for eating; so why not for Scrabble?
Not good enough for scrabble? It’s in The Oxford English Dictionary
Etymology: < fig n.1 + -y suffix1.
1. Resembling figs, sweet as figs; in quot. ?1549 fig.
?1549 Bp. J. Hooper Declar. 10 Commandm. iv. 39 A gentle, swete, and fyggie god that..will not see thabhomination.
2. Made with figs, i.e. raisins; see fig n.1 5.
1846 Spec. Cornish Dial. 53 A thoomping figgy pudden.
1867 W. H. Smyth & E. Belcher Sailor's Word-bk. Figgie-dowdie, a west~country pudding, made with raisins, and much in vogue at sea among the Cornish and Devon men.
3. In Soap-making: Containing white granulations, like the seeds of figs, of stearate of potash.
1862 C. O'Neill Dict. Calico Printing 185/1 The quality of soft soap is thought to depend in some measure upon the existence of white particles diffused through the mass, producing the appearance called ‘figgy’.
We sang Gaudete in either high school or college choir. I don’t remember which, but I don’t feel like we enunciated like this group. They are very “GOW-DAY-TAY” about it.
Oh, I know! Mediaeval Baebes in general are not super great with the accurate pronunciation thing, but I kind of love them for it.
Rock on. If you’re gonna be quirky, own that s**t. :)
All of the popular recorded versions of Gaudete seem to pronounce that word similarly, including the Steeleye Span recording that is probably the best known. At least the Baebes pronounce “virgine” correctly with the first syllable rhyming with “ear”, unlike Span who have it rhyming with “burr”.
Whoa. HOW could you leave out “Down in Yon Forest”?
I don’t know that one! BURN ME AS A HERETIC!
Wood already seasoned: Holly and Ivy burn REALLY well.
Fascinating! Makes sense.
YES YOU DO (and yes, I’m shouting and failing to punctuate.). I brought it to your attention last year as “creepiest Christmas carol ever,” and it’s been on my Christmas playlist for at least two years. Plus, Grail legend overtones. What’s not to love?
FORGIVE THE FALLIBILITY OF MY HUMAN MEMORY
Nay, wench, ye shall burn, in your own plum pudding with a sprig of holly in your heart.
It’s not actually a Christmas carol – though it gets sung at Christmas because it’s old, and old = medieval = Christmas. If it’s anything it’s about Corpus Christi which is midsummer, but it has a lot of resemblance to the story of the Fisher King.
‘Down in yon forest’ is at least partially linked to Glastonbury:
Under that bed there runs a flood:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
The one half runs water, the other runs blood:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.
[The red and white springs of Glastonbury]
At the bed’s foot there grows a thorn:
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring:
Which ever blows blossom since he was born:
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything. [The holy thorn]
I don’t know of any evidence of pre-existing carols which were Christianised later. Can you point me at that?
Holly = male. Ivy = female. There’s a Pagan re-write which is quite sensual [G]
Can I recommend This Endris Night?
Sorry can’t comment, *laughing*
I definitely think you should follow this list up with a list of Carols or whatever you want to call them from other countries such as France, Poland, Spain, and Appalachia.
Another country: Appalachia?
I love it that you’ve designated Appalachia as another country. We’ll claim that! Thar’s musick in them thar hills!
Absolutely! How about the Kentucky Wassail, for a bourbon-infused Christmas?
Ahhh yes down here we will ‘clog’ to anything, even Christmas music
Fear not for I doth love clogging and mean no disrespect.. but Christmas music? thats funny…
This list is fan-bloody-tastic!! Preparing to share it, particularly with my musician and clergy friends. In the meantime may I humbly submit one more for your list: “This Little Babe” from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. It only takes four lines to get around to mentioning Satan and hell and the overcoming thereof, in a war fought by a baby and sung about by girls.
I love “This Little Babe!” I sang it with the PA Girlchoir way back when.
We sing this with my Group Cantori! Sooo fast. We also do tomrrow shall be my dancing day which I love too
YES, I’m so glad someone mentioned This Little Babe. I sang it in high school. Truly terrifying! HA!
The thing that terrifies me the most about “This Little Babe” is the breakneck speed at which one must sing it!
(Originally sung by little boys of course)
Missing “This Little Babe,” which fits so very many of your criteria:
This little babe, so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold
All hell doth at His presence quake
Though He Himself for cold do shake
And in this meek, unarmed guise
The gates of hell He will surprise.
Dude, two hells and a Satan right up front.
Oh yes! It’s a whole war in a carol.
This Little Babe
This little babe just three days old,
Is come to rival Satan’s hold
All hell doth at his presence quake,
though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmored wise
the gates of hell he will surprise.
With tears he fights and wins the field,
his naked breast stands for a shield.
His battering shot are babish cries,
his arrows looks of weeping eyes.
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
and feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.
His camp is pitched in a stall,
his bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
of shepherds he his muster makes.
And thus as sure his foe to wound,
the angels’ trumps alarum sound
My soul with Christ
join thou in fight;
stick to the tents
that he hath pight.
Within his crib
is surest ward;
this little Babe
will by thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy
foes with joy, then
flit not from this
The young poet of “This Little Babe” didn’t have to go far to find violent imagery. He was surrounded by colleagues and friends who were being tortured and martyred under Queen Elizabeth. He wrote this poetry in hiding before his capture, which was followed by many long tortures on the rack and his being drawn and quartered for the crime of being a priest. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/robert-southwell
The first carol is “God rest you merry, gentlemen.” Check out the syntax here.
I always wondered about that erstwhile comma. Some places you see it, others you don’t.
Hoyt is correct, with the comma between “merry” and “gentlemen”. But singing it makes it difficult to handle the “normal” transition, with a slight pause after “merry”. You either hear it all run together, or the slight pause(or inflection) after “you”. Unfortunately, just because you know this doesn’t mean anybody’s going to listen to you, anyway… Figgy pudding, anyone?
When modern people say “Merry” Christmas, the word merry means happy. When “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was written, merry had a very different meaning. Robin Hood’s “Merry Men” might have been happy, but the merry that described them meant great and mighty. Thus, in the Middle Ages, a strong army was a merry army, a great singer was a merry singer, and a mighty ruler was a merry ruler.
So when the English carolers of the Victorian era sang, “merry gentlemen,” they meant great or mighty men. Ye means you, but even when translated to “God rest you mighty gentlemen,” the song still makes very little sense. This is due to another word that has a much different meaning in today’s world and a lost punctuation mark.
The word rest in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” simply means keep or make. Yet to completely uncover the final key to solving this mystery of meaning, a comma needs to be placed after the word “merry.” Therefore, in modern English, the first line of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” should read “God make you mighty, gentlemen.” Using this translation, the old carol suddenly makes perfect sense, as does the most common saying of the holidays, “Merry Christmas.”
And now you know.
I absolutely LOVE your list. Still, I’ll bet I can think of some others that belong here, but I digress. I was taught in choir that the correct version is “God rest ye merry, gentlemen.” That means God keep you merry. “God rest ye, merry gentlemen” is addressed to some gentlemen and the singer is wishing them rest. I much prefer that these gentlemen be merry than rested – especially when they’re going around wassailing.
And it’s “you,” not “ye.” “Ye” is the subjective, like “he” and “I” and “we.” “You” is the objective, like “him” and “me” and “us.” To say “God rest ye merry” would be like saying “God rest he merry” instead of “him.”
“Ye” dropped out of the language and was replaced by “you” in all cases, except that “ye” crept back in when people were trying to be archaic and didn’t know the archaic grammar. Maybe this is an instance of this but if it is WE SHOULD CORRECT IT.
I suspect that in this case the “ye” here comes from a bad transcription of þe (note the “thorn” character þ there), which is a phonetic spelling of “thee” using a letter that’s no longer in our (Latin/English) alphabet. Check Wikipedia for the article Thorn_(letter), and then look in the Middle_and_Early_Modern_English section for support.
Personally a huge fan of the non-canonical “yo I absolutely contributed the most to this birth of christ thing” ones-upmanship of all the manger animals in “The Friendly Beasts”.
The Friendly Beasts, however, is set to the most boring tune ever.
The story of the Cherry Tree Carol comes from The Infancy Gospel of Matthew (also known as Pseudo-Matthew), an apocryphal/pseudepigraphal Gospel.
Read it here:
@Simon re the Cherry Tree Carol: + 1 for the term “pseudepigraphal” since it makes me think maybe it’s apocrypha written by an imaginary pig
The “boring tune” in The Friendly Beasts is the medieval part of it, it’s “The Carol of the Ass”: Orientis partibus / Adventavit Asinus / Pulcher et Fortissimus / sarcinis aptissimus … ”
More here: http://lyricstranslate.com/en/orientis-partibus-oriental-countries.html
The words are early 20th century, written for a children’s Christmas pageant at Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City, using the old tune.
It’s also a first cousin to “Serving Girl’s Holiday,” recorded by, guess who, Maddy Prior.
Well done. Well, well done.
“Wenceslaus” is obviously a Stephen’s Day song, but it rawks, let it stay! I like that it’s a teaching-song; the page is taught to learn from the Good Master by following in his footsteps. I also admire Walt Kelly’s lyrics: “Good King Sauer Kraut, Look out! On your feets uneven!”
Bahaha. Nothing like a good parody.
I am always impressed when someone remembers and quotes something from Pogo.
In the front of my carol book is a copy of the strip with “Deck us all with Boston Charlie”…. just sayin’.
” … Walla Walla Wash, and Kalamazoo.”
Always thought it should be Liz who was freezing on the trolley, though, not Nora. Closer to “’tis.”
Have you heard the version of Gaudete by Steeleye Span? They sing the fancy Latin in their flat, lower class Welsh accents (or whatever it is), and it’s hilarious. Listen to it.
MY FAVORITE. I was torn and almost used that version here, but I already had lots of Maddy Prior so decided to vary it up.
Under #4, the non canonical adventures of Jesus, I would like to submit “The Huron Carol” for several reasons: first, the completely politically incorrect notion that First Nations hunters should bow down before their new colonial lord, aka a Christian Jesus. Second, the fact that most versions include a song chorus imitating a drum that goes “Boom diddy boom boom, boom diddy boom boom, boom diddy boom boom, Booo-ooo-ooom” like some demented 1950’s rockabilly band. Third, and most importantly, that God is called Gitchee-Manitou in the Carol and as kids in Sunday School, it always made us giggle because it sounded like we we’re singing about underwear.
WHAT. This is TOTALLY bonkers. I must investigate.
There is an amazing version of the Huron Carol sung in the Huron language here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6IG6F6E5Ac
Other fabulous versions in English are at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khQlkRcTdN0 and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgPeEvUl06Y
I think you might be getting Huron Carol mixed up with Land of the Silver Birch, Home of the Beaver… There’s a whole bunch of boom diddy’s in there.
You are correct. The boom-diddys are in Land of the Silver Birch. We sing that one on canoe trips with appropriate dance moves. Since I live in northern Minnesota I taught the Huron Carol (“Twas in the moon of wintertime”) to my children’s choir as a sort of local history effort although I agree it’s a little presumptuous.
Love the list. While “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” isn’t technically a Christmas song, I welcome any opportunity to hear it. While the version you selected is nice, have you heard the Bairstow version? It gives me chills singing it or listening to it. (Especially the end.)
Let all mortal flesh keep silence
and stand with fear and trembling,
and lift itself above all earthly thought.
For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God,
cometh forth to be our oblation,
and to be given for Food to the faithful.
Before Him come the choirs of angels
with every principality and power;
the Cherubim with many eyes, and wingèd Seraphim,
who veil their faces as they shout exultingly the hymn:
There just something about people singing loudly of angels with “many eyes.”
Chills! I like this one a lot.
I, a Jew, 100% agree. Christmas needs to get back to its roots, which (to me) are flesh and hellfire and minor chord anthems in medieval Latin, with bagpipes.
Yes! The TRUE reasons for the season!
Excellent sentiments, but after sixty years of singing at Christmas I’d have to add a few more to your list. Do you count Advent hymns too?
Oh, sure! Despite all my blustering I’m actually pretty lenient on what constitutes a quote-unquote carol (and as many more liturgically-savvy than I have noticed, “Let All Mortal Flesh” isn’t even technically a Christmas song. Womp womp.)
It seems to me that a eucharist song underscores the “mass” part of Christ-mass. Also the song describes the babe as food for the faithful and he was born in a manger (Fr. to eat).
And further to the Eucharist/Christmas connection, you only have to look to folks like Justin Martyr and Ignatius of Antioch to see the explicit linking of the Incarnate flesh and the Eucharistic flesh. So totally appropriate (if a little awkward for non-sacrmentalists).
This is totally righteous.
Humble offering: “Veni, Veni, Emmanuel.” It is not technically old in its complied form, but consists entirely of ancient, bad-ass Latin antiphons re: Iesse Virgula, Clavis Davidica, etc. To quote you — “metal as heck.”
LOVE Veni, Veni. I think I meant to put it on here but forgot. Very metal indeed.
Technically, this is an Advent hymn. Since Advent has become the heathen’s “Christmas” shopping season, I guess it’ll do.
THIS IS WONDERFUL!!!!! “JESUS VANQUISHING HELL. SIX WINGED SERAPH AND CHERUBIM THAT COULD ZAP RUDOLPH INTO VENISON WITH ONE GLANCE FROM THEIR LASER-FOCUSED SLEEPLESS EYES” For a very similar reason, one of my favorite hymns of all times is “Jerusalem” because when else do you get to sing about “dark Satanic mills”
YES!!! “Jerusalem” is actually the school song of my (Quaker) K–12 school…which seems like a strange choice, given all the pacifism and stuff, but before THAT the song was something set to the Haydn tune that would become the Deutschlandlied. Obviously, after WWII, that had to change, and so Satanic Mills it was.
Jerusalem also mentions kid Jesus’ apocryphal adventures in England with Joseph of Arimathea, so it fits the theme here. I love it so much it was the prelude at my wedding, but instrumental so no “dark satanic mills” or “bring me my chaaariot of fire.”
Can’t believe you left out the “Little Drummer Boy” (The “Ba romp a bomp bomb” alone makes it worth mentioning – fun to sing sound effects have to be worth something.)
The Little Drummer Boy
Dreariest Christmas music ever — invariably performed andante or even slower, and subjectively infinite in length, with no high point.
I probably posted this somewhere else, also, as I am a Registered Drummer Boy Hater. I realize that this is many people’s favorite carol, but I will join in the spirit of this list and say that you are just plain wrong. The kid played his drum near a sleeping baby? Excuse me? The ox and lamb kept time? What – they tapped their cloven hooves? Or did they just sway rhythmically? And the rom-pa-pom-poms are the definition of tedious.
So, in summary, you may have your Little Drummer Boy – you may even enjoy your LIttle Drummer Boy. Just please, please, please don’t play it around me.
You clearly haven’t heard the version by a German heavy metal band (whose name I have forgotten) sung by the drummer and his drum solo is AWESOME! ImI
The band is Sephiroth. I went looking for them on this recommendation.
(My verdict – laughably awful)
Oh and “Little Drummer Boy” fits Criteria # 4 quite well, I might add. And “Ba romp a bomp bomb” seems like it could be Latin, particularly after several steins of wassail made from hard cider.
Don’t forget Corpus Christi Carol, which contains both Latin and a trippy voyage via falcon to an orchard containing a knight with perpetually-bleeding wounds.
I really want to hear that Corpus Christi Carol. Preferably when properly uh prepared.
Nicely done! The Singing Dogs version of “Jingle Bells” is also a good one. “Little Drummer Boy” sung by Bing Crosby and David Bowie is the only tolerable version of “Little Drummer Boy”. “Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney is the worst ever, makes me get my Grinch on.
Katherine Davis setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” You will never listen to that insipid Holst version again.
Katherine K. Davis was also composer of “The Little Drummer Boy”!
I like your list a lot but I’d like to put a word in for “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”. It’s very beautiful and the German words are great, though it really suffers in English translation.
Well, how can you expect “From tender stem hath sprung” to come anywhere near the FULL METAL of “Aus einer Wurzel zart”?
Ye gods I just googled and the original “Es ist ein Ros” has 16 stanzas. Win!
About the comment on bad rhymes in the review of The Holly and the Ivy…
We have to be careful about judging rhymes in old texts. The problem is that pronunciation has shifted over the years, and there are also multiple dialects of English (and American English) pronunciation. Poems and songs that appear to modern speakers to have bad rhymes often rhymed perfectly if they are read in the pronunciation of the time and place where they were written.
The Holly and the Ivy may be affected by this. Although the earliest references listed in Wikipedia are from the early 19th century, another online source gives the first publication of the text as 1710, and it was not represented as an original work so it may be even older.
Reference: an article from The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/3674119/The-story-behind-the-carol-The-holly-and-the-ivy.html by Rupert Christiansen, the author of the book Once More, With Feeling! A Book of Classic Hymns.
Can you or some other reader say something about the two different melodies for The Holly and the Ivy?
There are lots more than two!
YES TO ALL OF THESE!!! The more baroque the merrier. Good King Wenceslaus was the first carol I memorized as a kid, and the Cambridge Singers recording of Personent Hodie remains one of my family’s favorite Christmas morning jams. If you’re curious about translation, Verse 1 is about the Incarnation, Verse 2 describes the stable and mentions how THE PRINCE OF HELL IS ROBBED OF HIS SPOILS, Verse 3 is about the Magi, and Verse 4 tells everyone to sing with the angels.
Interesting that you include Let All Mortal Flesh, since my Catholic schools always used it as a year-round hymn about transubstantiation.
Have a listen to(and buy)kith&kin’s seasonal CD. No trace of sleighs or sugarplums!
The CD is “Yet Will I Be Merry: Carols and Songs of the Season”
The English have a whole genre of Christmas Carols that are lovely tunes but have lyrics which make no sense.
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree
Tomorrow shall be my Dancing Day.
I’m pretty sure that Jesus Christ the Apple Tree is American, but your point stands. Old carols are right up there with nursery rhymes in making no sense. Just think of the Twelve Days of Christmas.
Which is why some people waste their time trying to find secret codes in them about teaching Catholic doctrine in Protestant England, etc.
According to Wikipedia at least, the text is of English origin, and Elizabeth Poston (composer of the only setting I know) was definitely English.
I love both Apple Tree and Dancing Day – two of my favourites
Have you ever looked at “The Oxford Book of Carols”? The editors very reluctantly include “Good King Wenceslas” in their collection, pointing out that its tune is from a spring carol and calling it a “confused narrative” verging on doggerel. (I like to sing it, though.)
For your consideration, a carol in the old English style:
(I should mention: this is Nowell Sing We Clear, who’ve been singing and recording proper Christmas carols–none of this Santa-Claus-good-little-children pablum–for decades.)
YES THEY ARE WONDERFUL
This is deliciously erudite and grumpy. Or is it grumpy and erudite? Hand me some wassail, it’s no matter.
Thank you for including my fave on your list, BUT I ask you to check out this version from a Belfast boys’ choir:
Oh how I wish I had the nerve to post this on my parish’s Facebook page! But I will send it to our organist/choirmaster who will love it as much as I do.
The rabid wolf wanting to tear apart the ewe lamb in Riu Riu Chiu is rather epic:
My church choir is just learning that to sing on Christmas Eve! It’s very unusual!
Out with the pap/crap, and in with this list! Wonderful selection, and I sing its praises plangently!
Brilliant list. I agree 100% about “BRING ME FLESH AND BRING ME WINE,” “Let us servire cantico,” and “HEROD the KIIING, in his RAAAGGGINNGGG” (the rest of the CC is a bit of a let-down). When I was growing up, we also had a Noel Provencal album (vinyl, baby) that was fantastic and of a piece with these. Also, although it’s a little post-Christmas, I’d also include “Orientis Partibus” on my list.
I sense that you would also appreciate one of my and my husband’s favorite Christmas CDs (the one we call the “freeze to death” album): Drive the Cold Winter Away by Horslips. Lots of Gaelic, minor keys, and lively desperation, like someone dancing to avoid freezing to death. I recommend particularly “Ny Kirree fo Naghtey (The Sheep ‘neath the Snow).”
Does O Holy Night stand up to your criteria? “Long lay the world in sin and error pining” is not the gates of hell but it’s very far from the icky sweety stuff on the radio. Not to mention fun for the people who can hit the high notes.
The original French lyrics are better. Sadly, it suffers somewhat in translation. “People, on your knees and await your deliverance!” Seriously, I have a hard time hearing it in English now. And I’m a colloratura soprano so that song is ideal for my voice.
The awesomest verse of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is also the most clearly eucharistic (which is fine — Christmas ought to involve a mass). Six-winged seraphs and vanquishing the powers of hell are good and all, but “He will give to all the faithful / His own self for heavenly food” is a step beyond. God will descend to earth to demand your homage, and then you’re gonna eat him. Metal as hell.
I read somewhere that I Saw 3 Ships was about the excitement of their RELICS coming to town via ship. On Christmas Day, to boot! In the morning, no less! Pony up those coins to pay for a peek, poor folks! No idea if that story has any credibility, but the lyrics make more sense with that back story. I’m going with it. Great list, BTW!
I’ll fight you. You left out Gloucestershire Wassail? It’s about food and the avoidance of hell AT THE SAME TIME!
Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all.
Not only that, but it’s a strong entrant in the missing category of “Carols with archaic English words and/or places with funny spellings”.
I mean really, in how many carols do you get to threaten your hosts and audience?
Gloucestershire Wassail! YES!!
The Gloucestershire Wassail Song can basically be summed up as:
– We’ve got beer
– Wow, your 4 horses have good eyes/horns/ears/tails
– We just knocked at your doo because even though we have beer already, we want some of YOUR beer, and if we don’t like your beer then we’ll beat up whoever answer the door and break your mugs
– Your maid is cute; can we date her?
I love your list and I actually know and have sung all of them…. I must confess that I like some of the traditionals too (I enjoy singing the alto part in “Joy to the World”), and I love “In the Bleak Midwinter” — all of it! The alto part is great in that one too, and I like it just a bit faster than the Chanticleer version. Thanks for reminding me to get out all of my good music.
I love singing alto and am missing it greatly while I’m having to hold the soprano section together at my church.
I agree with everything you’ve said here.
please to enjoy “Christmas is not Drawing Near” –
Software’s choice of which one is a REAL Carol: after pop up ads in each from Part D Meds to Real Estate, and that was without a Manger song, it was ” Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” that drew a pop up ad for a group trip to visit the Pope.
Thanks for a huge smile on some grim days.
My understanding of the Coventry Carol is that it’s not about the baby Jesus at all. It is about the slaughter of the Innocents. The lullaby is both literal in the sense of the mothers trying to sing their babies peacefully to sleep before they are killed (or perhaps avoid being heard while hiding,) and also allegorical in the sense of a sleep of death (the child is dying, and the mother sings him to his rest.)
That woe is me, poor child, for thee
and ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”
None of these are “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” by Ramones.
Loved your list. Please check out this excellent song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iuqOOL49Mo
If you love Christmas songs that have power and awe in them, check out the American shape note hymns from books such as the Southern Harmony and the Sacred Harp.
Definitely agree with you, Martha, about the Shapenote / Sacred Harp tradition! VIGOR!! And funner than fun to sing.
I also really like Shapenote’s English cousin – the West Gallery tradition. As with Shapenote, lots of Vigor. Lots of Fuguing.
Here’s my favorite version of “As Shepherd’s Watched Their Flocks By Night” (These same words got set to many different tunes since, as I read, they were the only lyrics allowed to be sung as carols – as opposed to hymns – inside C. of E. churches until 1782).
Actually, The Holly and the Ivy rhymes beautifully in middle English, which is what it’s supposed to be sung in anyway. Sort of like singing Personent Hodie in Latin. And odds are ivy gets left out of decorations because holly and ivy are the traditional pagan symbols for the season. They’re some of the few evergreen plants in Britain.
Sorry, couple other tidbits. My sister was in Prague this past Summer, and apparently Wenceslaus never made it to King. His father killed him when he was still a prince because he disagreed with his dad. Boiled in oil after other things didn’t work. Prague has a lot of stuff like this in it’s history. And I think the Coventry carol is worth a second chance and listen when you bear in mind the fact that it’s not about the Christ child at all. It is, whole and entire, about the doomed children. The ones Herod killed, the ones who died so frequently in the medieval period the song was written in, and the ones still dying. It’s a haunting song that’s remarkably unsettling.
You should add “We Three Kings of Orient Are” to the list. It starts out cheerily enough, with plenty of praise and hope documenting the intrepid travel of the magi/wise men. But then it hits you with this deliciously bleak verse from Balthazar:
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb”
It’s got all the doom, death, and despair you could want in a Christmas carol. Add to that the fact that the story and identities of the magi are mostly post-biblical apocryphal compilations of popular myths, and you’ve got an excellently metal/not-strictly-biblically-canonical carol.
And an Ella Fitzgerald version as a bonus, albeit without the death and suffering verse: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTAiPV4VLzQ
Yes to all of this, but I think We Three Kings deserves some love, what with its super dark turn to bleeding and dying and tombs in verse 4.
Great list…but youve left out one of my favourites…the Cowboy Carol. Where else can you sing about climbing up into your saddle and then yelling yoi yippee at a Christmas service??!! Love it!
O come, o come Emmanuel also mentions Satan, though not until the second verse.
It is also an Advent carol, although we are being inclusive in this discussion.
Fucking awesome. My favorite one is the one about the Cherry Tree Carol. Unfortunately, I have never been blessed to sing in a church that allowed the unsanitized version of the carol, so the tree bows down to Mary for no fucking reason. This is why I was reduced to singing it in one of my graduate recitals.
This is the first time I’ve seen the lyrics to The Holly and the Ivy. I was struck by the total absence of any activity at all by the ivy. Why is this slacker even IN this song?
They aren’t carols in the most traditional sense, but Herbert Howells’ Three Carol-Anthems are lovely. I think ‘Here is the Little Door’ is a nice fit for this group – a tenderly-set, loving description of the babe-in-manger scene is bolstered by exposition on the kings’ gifts, with references to weaponry, battle, and death. Plus, AWESOME use of the interjection, “Oh,” mid-sentence. And tiny feet! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4cHUoP8F7c
LOVE this! I think Deck the Halls might qualify, it’s not bleak but is all about holly and burning logs and has the great line “Don we now our gay apparel” AND the Fa la la chorus…And from across the pond here in Texas, as much as I hate modern “carols” there are some that are worth mentioning: Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer, and Please Daddy Don’t get Drunk This Christmas come to mind…
Deck The Hall is even better in the original non-temperance’d (is that a word? it is now) version
ie the one that says “Fill the mead cup, drain the barrel” instead of “Don we now our gay apparel”, and so on with drinking references everywhere they could include one
ON the same topic – I’ve recently come across The Apple Tree Wassail, which completely forgets to mention Jesus or Christmas at all (even though it’s conventionally sung during the Twelve Days between Christmas and Epiphany), but manages to end every verse with a call for more cider. Plus it has “There was an old farmer and he had an old cow/went out to milk her, he didn’t know how”
I’ve always preferred Walt Kelly’s replacement lyrics for “Deck the Halls”.
Oops that link should be: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zb_W_JP5kgc
Great list! “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (Divinum Mysterium) is another beauty….
Actually there are only 12 days in which to sing Christmas carols .. which should be sung after Christmas and until Twelfth Night. Before Christmas one sings advent carols
Let’s not forget Adeste Fideles
I so agree on nearly all of these and have only to strongly recommend “Lo How a Rose,” which recently became my favorite instead of Wenceslas, as well as “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” – which has excellent depressing lyrics, including: “And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low, Who toil along the climbing way, With painful steps and slow.” (Trippy to hear cheerful Frank Sinatra deal with that verse)
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming is also an Advent carol. Which have been permitted elsewhere. And it is a really lovely carol. With an interesting (and fun to sing) meter.
I know it’s super mainstream and all, but how can you possibly omit “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” from a list of this nature? Not only are there gloriously awkward rhymes and references to wombs (always a good time), but in the second verse Jesus (aka “The Godhead” – presumably his rockin’ wrestler persona?) literally wears a veil made of human flesh:
Christ by highest Heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time, behold him come
Offspring of the Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail, incarnate deity
It just does NOT get more grotesquely literal than that, I tell you what.
I know this is old, but YES.
Also mainstream, but I get a chill in O Come All Ye Faithful when we sing actual WORDS FORM THE CREED, (which scan badly, okay.)
I loathe Let All Mortal Flesh! I offer What Child is This? in exchange. Check out the second verse:
“Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and donkeys are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spears shall pierce him through,
the cross he bore for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
the Babe, the Son of Mary.”
However, I will cede the spot to This Little Babe from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.
A superb list. I would only add Adam Lay Ybounden for the use of English so old it sounds like a made up language.
Agreed, I love it too, but the theology is pretty convoluted: if Adam hadn’t taken the apple (i.e., sinned), Mary would never have been Queen of Heaven, so praise God that Adam sinned…
That’s consistent with the theology of the Felix culpa in the Exsultet: “O blessed iniquity that required such a savior.”
Wait! The words on the illustration at the top of the post are from The Ditchling Carol, which should absolutely be on this list. What were you thinking?
…and I agree with your sentiments totally. I’ve been secretly listening to Christmas music since a bit before Thanksgiving. But only the good stuff. 0h, and your sample of Bleak Midwinter, is really bleak (and smarmy).
“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” has a line in a later verse that says, “Veiled in flesh the godhead see/Hail th’incarnate Deity!”
I have never not laughed at how weirdly pornographic that sounds.
Coventry Carol is not a lullaby — it’s a song of mourning, a dirge for all the dead children whom the singer could not protect nor avenge. The “little tiny child” to whom it is sung is a corpse.
In the food category, I quite like “The Boar’s Head Carol”
What about I wonder as I wander?
May I put in a word (or several) for O Magnum Mysterium? 1. it’s in Latin; 2. it has “animals” though admittedly, not as food, and “womb”(actually, “viscera,” which is even better); 3. there are settings for every taste, though I recommend the Renaissance version (of course) by Tomás Luis de Victoria, from 1592. Here you go:
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
Yes, I have loved O Magnum Mysterium since I first heard it 40 years ago.
The Morton Lauridsen one is pretty sublime also. Extremely sublime in fact.
What about “There is no Rose of such Virtue”? It’s English but really old, and has random bits of Latin thrown in to make us feel all clever and holy. Plus it’s a fabulous tune. I love your hardcore approach to the whole subject. Have you heard Sting doing “The Burning Babe”? Talk about chills!
I’m loving reading these comments. I have to admit that I agree with the above criteria but I have the added ones of being supposed to be sung really really loud and having a fun high note at the end “glorias” that go on forever. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing gets in on several counts but I wanted to add that I always think the line is going to be “pleased as punch with man to dwell” rather than “pleased as man with man to dwell” which leads to Christmas morning giggles which is always nice.
Love this! But you used the Ditchling Carol lyrics in your pull photo, and didn’t even include a link to it! I protest this oversight! :-D Here’s a link to one rendition, though I prefer the Dave Carter/Tracy Grammer version:
I love you. We were clearly separated at birth.
And here’s proof. Maybe our circles don’t totally mesh in a Venn diagram, but I think there’s significant overlap.
What about the third verse of we three kings?
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
EVERYONE always wants to skip it, but it’s my faaaavorite.
The list seems to need another category, along the lines of: “Plant-Based Carols”. Note that one of the author’s own canonical examples, “The Holly and The Ivy,” seems to fit none of her six categories. Also included in this expansion team would be the fine “Green Groweth the Holly,” “Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen,” and perhaps “O Tannenbaum” or “Misteltoe, Wrecker of Souls”. (Disclaimer: I made that last one up; but see Keyte and Parrot’s note on page 600 of their 1992 collection.)
Going to throw in a Francophone curveball that meets criterion 2:
“Dans nos vieilles maisons” is all about the all-night party/binge that is Le Reveillon and you can totally dance to it!
Comme c’est le temps du réveillon
La vieille a fait des cretons
Du ragoût de pattes de cochon
Des tourtières et du jambon
Pour le dessert sur la table
Notre bon sirop d’érable
Des beignes, de la crème d’habitant
Les ceintures changent de cran
Maintenant qu’on a trop mangé
On peut à peine souffler
Des histoires à raconter
Rire ça fait digérer
Déjà cinq heures du matin
La veillée tire à sa fin
On réveille les enfants
On se dit au revoir en baillant
I would like to add my voice to the previous commenters that bemoan the absence of a wassail song on your list. Those are ALL ABOUT FOOD. And drink. Mostly drink. My favorite is the Gloucester Wassail, but a close second is “Bring Us In Good Ale,” a Medieval carol which touts the superiority of ale over any food, which has clearly been prepared in a kitchen that does NOT adhere to USDA standards. My favorite verse is “Bring us in no butter, for therein are many hairs;/Nor bring us in no pig’s flesh, for that will make us boars.”
Oh yes!!! This is one of my absolute favorites. I love how they hurriedly throw in “for our Blessed Lady’s sake” in between demands for booze, just to make it all Holy.
How about the Crown of Roses with music by Tchaikovsky. I’m partial to Christmas carols that sing about baby Jesus and then spend a lot of time about his future gruesome death. Merry Christmas!
My a cappella group has taken to using “What the gladsome” as an alternative to “what the fuck?” during Christmas season.
I also love the “radiant beams from they holy face” in Silent Night, because it makes me think baby Jesus has laser eye beams that can kill.
(We also changed our copy of Silent Night to show it was composed by HANS Gruber, not Franz Gruber, to remind us of the best Christmas movie, Die Hard).
Love your list, but wonder if you had considered “Twas in the moon of wintertime”? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDd7jYF6WTM . What’s not to like about the “mighty Gitchi Manitou” sending angel choirs, a babe wrapped in rabbit skin, and chiefs bringing gifts of fox and beaver pelt?
I’m more of a fan of the versions of “I Saw Three Ships” by Blackmore’s Night (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5LROczmJHg) and the Chieftains (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCtzUA2ArOs).
Episcopal priest here, and immigrant from England. My Christmases were filled with recording of English choirs singing all of these. I love this list and thank you for you vital ministry in the service of proper carols!
Great list, Blair – but I’m bemused that someone of your obvious erudition and exquisite taste did not mention “Remember Thou, O Man” by Ravenscroft. The ultimate Christmas carol, filled with vivid images of death and damnation and not even mentioning the Babe in Bethlehem until the next to last verse. Gives a true picture of how they celebrated (??) Christmas in 17th century England.
Remember O thou man
thy time is spent:
how thou art dead and gone,
And I did what I can,
Remember Adam’s fall
o thou man
From heav’n to hell!
How we were condemned all
In hell perpetual,
There for to dwell.
Remember God’s goodness,
o thou man,
And promise made!
How he sent his son, doubtless
Our sins for to redress:
Be not afraid!
The angels all did sing,
o thou man,
On heav’n’s high hill;
Praise to our hean’nly King,
And peace to man living,
With a good will.
In Bethlem He was born,
o thou man,
For mankind’s sake;
For us that were forlorn,
And therefore took no scorn,
Our flesh to take.
Give thanks to God always,
o thou man,
with heart most joylly,
For this is our happy day,
let all men sing and say:
I love your list! May I suggest an album I think you would like: Bright Day Star, by The Baltimore Consort. “Christmas is my name” might belong on your list…
If you aren’t already familiar with it, check out Bruce Cockburn’s “Christmas” album. That was my introduction to the Huron Carol, Down in Yon Forest (at least the spooky version, not Joan Baez’ sprightly rendition) and Riu Riu Chiu.
I’m trying without success to fit “Masters in this Hall” into any of your categories, so I’m resorting to threats: add MITH to your list, or I will make sure that you spend the coming Yuletide listening to an endless loop of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “Little Lamb, Who Made Thee,” and “Christmas Shoes.” Remember — I know where you live.
(Besides, William Morris + social upheaval. C’mon.)
I suggest the Besançon Carol (People Look East). Good feast and farm oriented lyrics. Sadly, most of the performances I’ve found are kind of dirge-like — this one is better sung with a bit of pep.
The Bellman’s Carol? Some “avoidance of Hell” verses:
7. Instruct and teach your children well,
The while that you are here;
It may be better for your soul
When your corpse lies on the bier.
8. Today you be alive and well,
With many a thousand pound;
Tomorrow dead and cold as clay
When your corpse lies on the ground.
Plus, the unintentionally humorous:
4. The fields were green as green could be,
When from his glorious seat
Our blessed Father watered us
With His heavenly dew so sweet.
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In Australia we have the special genre of carols that try to make sense of the fact that our Christmas takes place in summer, or which try to tell the story in Aussie vernacular
Some of my favourites in this genre:
Margaret Sutherland’s “Boy, We Follow A Star!” which opens with “Three old coots riding out of the east”
William James’ “Christmas Bush For His Adorning” which talks at length about plucking Christmas Bush – I had a very hard time trying to get my choir to sing that one with straight faces.
(James’ many other Australian carols are full of ‘the north wind is tossing the leaves’ or ‘out on the plains the brolgas are dancing’ or ‘three drovers riding blythe and gay’ etc)
Paul Paviour’s “The Merry Makers Carol”, which rhymes ‘cheer’ with ‘beer’, and whose basic message is ‘be merry at Christmas or we’ll put you in the stocks’
I myself am fond of any carol that mentions a Wren and the hunting of said small bird. Though in truth these are more Solstice carols than Christmas carols.
There is a relatively new Christmas carol that sounds old. It’s great because it has the line “the jackboots of generals shall jangle no more” and is alliterative as anything. Worth a listen.
An interesting list – I put this into a Spotify Playlist – https://open.spotify.com/user/chaoaj/playlist/3BC1OiyTK6eVe6lscdW6vu Enjoy!
The Boar’s Head Carol was sung by Oxford students as they brought in the boar’s head for the Christmas feast — NOT peasants. The Latin is terrible, deliberately so, as the students were making fun themselves and their less-than-perfect Latin. It’s PARODY!
Aha! Well, that explains a lot.
Listen, I’m not going to fight you, but I *am* going to suggest that you include “There Was a Pig”, the carol that provides an exhaustive list of all of the animals that have to go out and work the fields on Chris-a-muss Day in the morning. It’s kind of creepy, especially when sung by children, and also a little boring, but very short. And it ends with my favorite line about a minnow that went out to winnow. https://youtu.be/-3YJJbXSpZc
While it does not quite conform to your list of requirements, I am rather partial to “Bethlehem Down” which starts out rather sweet and peaceful and turns really grim in the third verse. It gets even better once you consider the backstory: Peter Warlock composed the music to a poem by Bruce Blunt as an entry to The Telegraph’s carol writing contest. They won, and immediately used all the money for a drinking bout.
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I love almost all of these carols, despite their mostly irrelevent lyrics. I enjoyed reading your comments.In my own list I would have included “We Three Kings’. and perhaps ‘Come, O come Emmanuel’ ( no pressure there, LOL.
I am a long term ( since the 1970s ) fan of Maddy Prior in Steeleye Span and The Carnival Band. Thank you
Oh my, I want to gush over this post so much. So, I will. 1. I completely agree with spending one’s precious Christmastime listening to only the best carols. 2. I adore your theory that the best carols fall into categories and that #6 is simply “Good King Wenceslas. ‘Nuff said. 3. I agree with most of your choices but I would replace Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence and The Boar’s Head Carol with Patapan and Bring a Torch! Jeanette Isabella. But I won’t fight you. Your post; your choice.
Erik Routley (hymnologist) used to say the difference between Christmas Carols and Christmas Hymns is that Christmas Carols can have “moldy cheese” in them. “…so bring us out some moldy cheese” Here we come A’Wassailing.
How can you claim that these are the best carols, when not one of them contains the word “ass”?
Another reason to add Orientis Partibus to the list
You are missing all sorts of opportunities by restricting yourself (mostly) to English language songs and carols.
Riu,Riu, Chiu (Spain) the chorus contains the line, Dios guardó el lobo de nuestra cordera (God kept the wolf from our lamb). OK, you have to read the animals as allegorical, but…..
Tomtarnas Julnatt (Swedish) describes the Tomten partying in someone’s house on Christmas Eve.
Jólakotturinn (Iceland) Jólakotturinn, The Yule Cat, sounds warm and fuzzy but isn’t. It comes on Christmas Eve to eat anyone who hasn’t received an article of clothing in the previous 12 days.
Indeed, non english carols can be awesome. Can I please bring to your attention Schedryck. Technically I think it is an Easter carol, but since it was turned into the most twee Carol of the Bells most people are happy for you to sing it to them at Christmas.
Sung at great speed trying to get your tongue around those consonants is great fun.
I challenge you to add The Oyster Band’s “The Breaking of Our Lord’s Birthday” to this list, because it is totally grim and vengeful. Let me know if you can’t find it and I’ll try to send you an audio file.
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Also there are a lot of other carols addressed to Joseph, reassuring him that it’s OK that Mary’s pregnant even though not by him. Lots of fun.
I’m a real-life church musician, and this list and commentary made me SO happy! Of course the list could be much longer but this one really works for me. My only strong dislike is Sufjan Stevens’ version of “I Saw Three Ships”. I know he’s the ruler of packaged “authenticity”, this just a “fail” compared to lots of virile choral arrangements out there. Or even a good young soprano singing it straight on. Stevens’ version tries way too hard to be different, thus killing the carol.
Surprised no-one has mentioned John Tavener’s Kontakion.
Gaudete was new to me. Thanks for the discovery. The lads in doublets are cute, but their Latin diction, oh my god, no!
The Moon Shines Bright/The Bellman’s Carol/The Waits’ Song.
For New Year’s Day, which is included in Christmas, and it’s in The Oxford Book of Carols. Very old. I love how it has gloomy verses about how we can die at any time, then ends with “Happy New Year.”
1. The moon shines bright and the stars give a light
A little before the day:
Our mighty Lord He looked on us,
And bade us awake and pray.
2. Awake, awake, good people all,
Awake, and you shall hear,
The Lord our God died on the cross
For us He loved so dear.
3. O fair, O fair Jerusalem,
When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end,
Thy joy that I may see?
4. The fields were green as green could be,
When from His glorious seat,
Our blessèd Father watered us,
With His heavenly dew so sweet.
5. And for the saving of our souls
Christ died upon the cross;
We ne’er shall do for Jesus Christ
As He hath done for us.
6. The life of man is but a span,
And cut down in its flower,
We’re here today, tomorrow gone,
The creatures of an hour.
7. Instruct and teach your children well,
The while that you are here;
It will be better for your soul,
When your corpse lies on the bier.
8. Today you may be alive and well,
Worth many a thousand pound;
Tomorrow dead and cold as clay,
Your corpse laid underground.
9. With one turf at thine head, O man,
And another at thy feet;
Thy good deeds and thy bad, O man,
Will altogether meet.
10. My song is done, I must be gone,
I can stay no longer here;
God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a joyful new year!
Putting in another vote for Britten’s “This Little Babe”, just for its usage of words like ‘babish’, ‘haystalks’, ‘alarum’, and my personal favorite, ‘pight’.
You might like the Baltimore Consort as well; ‘Hey for Christmas’ on their CD “Bright Day Star” fits well in your “food and drink” category, as well as the fact I think the singers were drunk by the time the song ended… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-YRT-Wodgo
Also, I am now randomly singing “Bring me flesh and bring me wine”. This is all right at the moment because I’m the only one up, but it may prove awkward later in the day. Cheers!
The Holly Bears a Berry deserves a spot here. Sounds like a dirge, mentions blood, rhymes “grass” and “cross” and is just generally awesome. I taught it to my wee bairns when they weren’t quite old enough to understand that I was indoctrinating them into their mother’s world of Papist morbidity and year-round celebration of Christmas on the down-low.
How cute, right?
This one isn’t common, but it’s an old favorite (I sang in a small early music group for some years.) http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/medlyric/exortum.php
I like your list and your criteria. If you do another list, may I suggest “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, a lovely carol not performed often enough.
There’s plenty of ancient cursedness and dread and doom in Conditot Alme Siderum.
Blair, you have the most erudite combox on the internet! I’m gonna hang out here as a safe haven from madness.
“This Little Babe” is FANTASTIC and so is “The Burning Babe.” From the first, “His battering shot are babish cries, his arrows, looks of weeping eyes” is just too cool. And the second – a vision of Sweet Levitating Baby Jesus literally on fire and crying because nobody wants to warm themselves by his flames. Whuck. Fabulous.
Also, “The Little Barley-Corne” is a pretty dang hilarious Christmas drinking song. https://youtu.be/2frJcvJseVk
Humbly submitted for consideration: The Wren in the Furze
I’ve done caroling for many years and I have always loved these selections more! Thanks for this blogpost!
HOWEVER I would also suggest these versions of the songs you already had:
(I think they are more beautiful versions!)
The Boar’s Head https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pj5BnQlMCk
Good King Wenceslas: https://youtu.be/SQVUMG6LZGM
Personent hodie (softer) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTz_rcolwyA
Personent hodie (faster) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tp1BAxJinOc
The Holly and the Ivy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KI9W6HIoBts
The Coventry Carol: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIvH5GdY4JE
and add Lo How a Rose ‘Er Blooming https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g458-jXkbpU
and Still, Still, Still: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_C8Yaj7AqA
I’d like to mount a defense of Rossetti, who is actually my favorite poet, but I can’t think of what exactly to say in her favor that wouldn’t just be a reification of my own preferences. Her writing speaks to me. Go figure.
LOOOOVE this list. If you ever do a part deux, please consider “This Endris Night.” Old English and creepy as $hit. Mary talks to her baby who TALKS BACK, and says I’m laying in this hay stall and kings and dukes shall worship me, and you woman shall handle me on thy knee and sing me lullabies, damnit!” Listen to the Stephen Paulus arrangement with choir, harp, and oboe. BONKERS!
Keep up the good work :-)
Oooooh! And here’s my lovely choir performing it in 2015:
I am in love with you. That made me cry laugh. Wow. I was not expecting the sheer delight. I also learned. Thank you for this masterpiece. Xo
I never knew a Presbyterian to be so clever and funny – and accurate about hymnody! Even correcting the errors. WTG, Blair. This is hilarious. I’m a professional singer and church jobs are our bread & butter, so to speak. This wins the season for me. :-)
For a true gold mine of this type of midwinter carol and custom check out the Vermont-based band, “Nowell Sing We Clear.” Recently retired from the touring life – this quartet has 40 years of experience with archaic Christmas carols, mummers plays, sword dancing – not to mention the rich and intriguing body of non- Christian midwinter material that strangely compliments these gutsy old Christmas ‘carols’. Tony Barrand, John Roberts, Fred Breunig and Andy Davis. Check out our discography, lyrics and liner notes at:
The old carols mixed folklore with bible story. Christ’s birth was paired with his self-sacrifice. Christian imagery is piled on type of pre-christian symbols and legends. Apocryphal tales abound. These carols were meant for group singing and dancing – and even revelry. Yes, the best carols ever!
Of the Father’s Love Begotten!
This is a classic 8th century Latin hymn. It’s my absolute favorite Christmas Carol set to plain chant.
Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the world began to be
He is alpha and omega
He the source the ending He
Of the things that are that have been
And that future years shall see
Ever more and ever more.
That version of God Rest Ye Merry gentlemen is a bit soppy. My personal favourite is the one sung by Annie Lennox https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlsJD8RlhbI
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Blair, love your list. I think you would also like “A Virgin Unspotted.” You get get virgin birth, hell, original sin and redemption–and that’s just the first verse. I sang this in junior choir (third grade)–what a way to learn doctrine!
Very Anglophilic list. not all definitive by any means. Nothing from the French or Germans. Nice carols but . . .
My favorite bit of mis-remembered “Good King Wenceslas” text: “Bring me flesh and bring me wine, bring me figgy pudding,” [insert flash of panic at realization that these are not, in fact, the correct words but it’s too late to go back] “you take yours and I’ll take mine, nothing rhymes with pudding. LA la la la la la laaaa…” [WHEW, I’m sure no one noticed…]
Great list! I love obscure Christmas music. Here’s a playlist of some lesser-known Christmas songs: https://open.spotify.com/user/qaz23/playlist/22Hs4AlaOFExwI0cOEBHSj
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I could be perfectly happy listening to this list. I’d add a few others but we agree on the uselessness of the modern “merchandising” Christmas songs (NOT carols!)
We are twins!!!! Personant Hodie is one of my top tens, I”m all about old, latin and medieval Christmas and … YASSSSSSSS …. BRING ME FLESH AND BRING ME WINE (which is probably what the Holly has been shouting to the Ivy ever since that contest was won). Great post, great vids! MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU, TOO!