LLast night I sang in a Christmas carol service, many people gathered inside, exhaling a whirlwind of anxiety-inducing aerosols. Did it make sense? I’m not sure: we did our lateral flow tests, but you never know. Could I resist? Absolutely not. Living abroad, I would become deeply melancholy this time of year if I could not sing hymns. I’m not religious, but something about, I guess, the very precise way they evoke an interwoven sequence of times and places always moves me. There are Christmas carols in French, but they never gave me the intense and heartbreaking nostalgia I feel for those I grew up with. I mean, one of them is called What is that pleasant smell?, or “What’s that nice smell?” Surely this is something you would ask when entering a kitchen where a delicious cassoulet is simmering, not a stable to worship the baby Jesus?
Although I was delighted to finally do some real Christmas carols, when the running order was released I started making Scrooge faces and scathing comments, determined to check the horse’s molars. gift. I have opinions on Christmas carols. Many of them.
First of all, I believe there are two types of good Christmas carols: deeply weird and dark, and what I would call âshouty bangersâ. The strangest have mysticism and weirdness, a sense of the palpable and dangerous winter darkness that makes all this miracle stuff explode. I like lyrics such as “Dread caverns of the grave” and “Nether hell” (O Come, O Come, Emmanuel), “bitt’r as any gall” (The Holly and the Ivy) or die / Sealed in the cold falls from a stone, âthe only redemptive track in the otherwise tedious We Three Kings. Dark words (what are âoblationsâ?) Are welcome, as are the stunning visuals (âHis wings like snow blown / His eyes like flamesâ are beautiful) and free Latin.
The second type has a punchy energy that leaves the singer hoarse and sweaty, no matter how cold the room is. Listen ! the Herald Angels Sing combines screaming and, in the full version, puzzling lyrics (“bruise in us the head of the snake”, what do you think?). O Come, All Ye Faithful has the kind of chorus that builds and builds itself until you come home with a sore throat that no Strepsil can touch. Although not strictly a Christmas carol, the Hills of the North Advent hymn, Rejoice includes the line “Shout as you come home”, bringing it into the God level. . Mention of sin, Satan or Herod gets bonus points in either category.
As for evil, I don’t want schmaltz and easy sentimentality: win my tears, damn it. Away in a Manger is saccharin (and the “make us heaven” bit is sinister); Little Donkey maybe even worse. Yes, I’ll almost certainly cry at Silent Night, but I’ll be mad at myself and the Christmas carol (and good luck getting that piece of “peace” at the end of the first verse so you don’t sound like a beast that suffers). I have pondered whether the use of the word ‘small’ is a red flag, but it does feature in the charming Coventry Carol, although it is less of a Christmas carol and more of a song. lament of haunting beauty for the massacre of the innocent (festive!).
Anything that evokes a vision of sheep’s whiskers or fur tips is problematic, threatening a dyspeptic overdose of mirth. I love Ding Dong Merrily on High, but I disapprove of my own enthusiasm. We wish you a merry Christmas used to push my mom to open the front door when sneaky youngsters came along to sing Christmas carols for money and whistle with steely intensity, “This is not one song – sing another! “; I honor her memory by hating her. Once in Royal David’s City “Christian children should all be / Sweet, obedient, good like him” is Victoriana’s worst type: I imagine – arguably unfairly – its author writing the line while a kid was cleaning his fireplace .
I brought up the issue of good singing and bad singing on Twitter and waved a nest of good-humored hornets, covering everything from the best frame of In the Bleak Midwinter (Darke, but that’s irrelevant, because Christina Rossetti’s claim that “my heart” is a gift for an infant is unacceptable) at the punctuation mark in God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen. One day later, people still express their dislike of The Twelve Days of Christmas and the love of O Holy Night: it’s been a delightful distraction from, well, everything.
In the end, of course, I loved every second of the concert, ending the evening teary-eyed and throat tight (hopefully the emotion not Omicron). It was a bright pinch of joy in the dark, just like the best Christmas carols.