Christmas carols as folk music

Christmas carols, according to one source I found, weren’t originally Christian. They were solstice songs. Then the country was Christianized and it took the songs along with it, but they didn’t become church songs, they stayed outside, in people’s homes, as well as out of doors and in whatever the period’s equivalent of the pub was. They were seasonal folk songs.

Fast forward more than a few hundred years and Oliver Cromwell came to power, with his humorless version of Protestantism. He didn’t approve of fun, and he tried to stamp the songs out but they went underground and survived.

In the Victorian era they were rediscovered and became respectable (I think) and new carols were added.

End of history lesson. I won’t swear that it’s entirely accurate, but it seems to be somewhere in the neighborhood of accuracy. Close enough (as they say of guitar tuning) for folk music.

Semi-relevant photos: They're not holly berries, but they're red. And whatever they are, they're around in the winter.

Semi-relevant photo: They’re not holly berries, but they’re red. And whatever they are, they’re around in the winter. Close enough for one of my posts.

One of the many shocks of moving to Cornwall was discovering that the carols sung here aren’t the songs Wild Thing and I grew up with. Sometimes the tunes are different, sometimes the words, sometimes the whole damn song’s new to us. And when we’d comment on it, as we did at first, repeatedly whoever we were talking to would look unimpressed and say, “Oh, that’s the Boscastle version.” Or “That’s the Marhamchurch version.” Or that’s some other version. As if difference were perfectly normal.

Or dainty little American souls were scandalized. Because Christmas carols? They were supposed to be unchangeable. But here was every town, every village, practically every house, with its own variation.

That does testify to the genuine folkiness of carols. That’s what folk’ll do if you turn your back on them. They’ll change stuff. They’ll create new stuff. They’ll take the stuff you think is fixed forever and make it their own.

I should admire that, and in the abstract I do. But it also pisses me off. I have a dainty little American soul. Those are Christmas carols. They’ve been through the American Commercial Christmas Network that fed my childhood and you’re not allowed to change them.

But change them people have, and they did it long before the American Commercial Christmas Network got its fake-snow-and-glittery little hands one them.

This year, like every year, Christmas carols are everywhere. Not I don’t mean just piped into stores, the way they are in the U.S., although that happens too, and it always starts too early in the year. I just got back from taking the dog to the vet (I’m writing this in early December) and they’re playing them there already. The woman at the reception desk had reached her limit the day before and turned them off, along (accidentally) with the internet. I thought it was worth sacrificing the internet to get some peace and quiet. Sadly, the whole thing was fixed by the time I showed up.

But real people will also be singing them. Every local choir and brass or silver band (and there are as many of each as there are petitions on the government petition site) will have been practicing them and looking for a time and place to inflict them on the public. Cafes and pubs will hold special events featuring carols. Someone’s head will pop out of the sink drain and start caroling.

And none of them will be the songs that I know, ignoring all the evidence to the contrary, to be unchangeable. In spite of that, and in spite of how heavily I’ve slanted my language about them, a lot of people will be happy to hear them. Probably most people. After the first one of two, I don’t happen to be among them, that’s all.

A mid-December update on how inconsistent I am about all this: Friends asked me to join them on a version of “Silent Night” at the pub’s singers night. They need an extra alto; I have a low voice. I was pleased to be asked and I said yes. They’re nice people, and good singers.

It’s a beautiful version, even if it’s not the one I know to be, ahem, right. We ran through it a few times the other day and once we started singing, the pleasure of it took over and my quibbles fell away. Except for every so often, when I’d listen to myself and think, These are very strange words for me to be singing.

Which leads me to my yearly explanation of how this Jewish atheist ended up knowing (never mind singing) Christmas carols.

First, if you live in the U.S., you can’t help knowing them. Whatever your beliefs, if you need so much as a tube of toothpaste during December (or late November, or possibly July) and go to a store to buy it, Christmas carols will drip their way into your ears and seep into your brain. No matter how sheltered your life is, you will learn them.

My life hasn’t been sheltered. I come from a family of assimilated Jews. In other words, we were Jewish but not particularly so. We didn’t keep the Jewish holidays or traditions, we weren’t religious, and I grew up celebrating Christmas as what my parents called a national holiday. Our way of celebrating, they’d have sworn, had no religious elements.

Except, of course, for the ones that snuck in. Because, second (you remember that just above we were counting the reasons I know Christmas carols?), we sang carols. They were nice songs. They were part of the holiday. Which was, in spite of all my parents could do, at its core a religious holiday. I might have been about eight when I was with my mother and listening to, or possibly singing, “Silent Night,” with its line about “round yon virgin mother and child.”

I asked what a virgin was.

“It’s a young woman who hasn’t had a baby,” my mother said.

Well, that was resolutely uninformative, although I don’t think she meant it to be. She was as direct with us about sex as she could bring herself to be, but it was the fifties, so she was fighting the weight of the culture. What I had pictured was a mother and child sitting around a fire. So okay, I understood that I had to change my picture. They were sitting around a young woman who hadn’t had a baby.

Why would they do that and how would it keep them warm?

I don’t know how many years it took me to make sense of that line.

In a lot ways, I think, the innocence of children is overvalued.

At a later Christmas, an older cousin brought a girlfriend who was a singer, and the whole extended Jewish (with a few exceptions) atheist (with at that time, I think, no exceptions) family ended up around the piano singing Christmas carols. We had a great time, and it wasn’t until decades later that I realized how funny that scene is.

So I have warm feelings about Christmas carols, but the annual piped-music assault wore a lot of them away. And then I moved from New York, where a lot of people around me didn’t celebrate Christmas, to Minnesota, where for a while it seemed that everyone did, and I missed the sense that celebrating was optional. It began to feel like a requirement, and I developed mixed feelings about the holiday.

It’s also true that I was an adult by then, and the prospect of presents didn’t give me the warm, greedy glow it once had. That could have had something to do with it too.

And now, in Cornwall, where I seem to be one of only three Jews within a forty (okay, fifteen) mile radius? I get spiky at this time of year. And I feel the urge, now and then, to remind some random person that not everyone celebrates Christmas, even if I do, and not everyone sings Christmas carols.

Occasionally I actually do that, and for the most part, the random person says, more or less, yes but it’s just a holiday. They remind me of its pagan roots. They tell me you don’t have to be a Christian to celebrate it.

And that’s true, but I’m not just not-a-Christian in terms of belief. I’m not a Christian. You see the difference?

Of course not. I don’t explain it well, at least partly, that’s because I don’t make a big thing out of being Jewish. It’s not a huge part of my life. But I am still Jewish. That’s not a simple thing to be, and I don’t want to let it disappear behind the tinsel and the music.

And with that out of the way, I’ll tell you that by the time you read this we’ll have decorated the tree–in part with ornaments my mother gave us. And we’ll light Hanukkah candles because Wild Thing, the recovering Southern Methodist, loves to.

Like I said, it’s complicated. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, or celebrated if I’m late, I wish you a good one. And if you don’t celebrate anything, I wish you a moment of quiet amid all the aggressive celebrating.

53 thoughts on “Christmas carols as folk music

  1. That’s it for festivals for 2016 already for me, 21st December Winter Solstice celebrated. Should be nice and quiet on the Christmas Day beach clean. :)

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  2. Truly a great article on the many varied experiences and feelings surrounding the celebration of Christmas and the singing of carols. The origins of the Holiday are diverse and the enjoyment of it are as well.

    Happy Holidays!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Happy Holidays.

    I’m not particularly religious, but I do love the music. Not as you point out for as long as they play it, but I start a few days before (yesterday!) and play some. There are a lot of songs that remind me too much of people I’ve lost, and I sing those myself when I need to feel close to them.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Well, Merry Christmas, and / or Happy Hanuka or whatever makes you happy. I would have trouble with variations in Christmas Carols or church hymns in general. In fact, I was an embarrassment to my family on many occasions when I would forget that in most Roman Catholic churches, they only sing the first verse of the hymns. Since I knew many by heart, v1-4, I would be belting out verse two while the congregation was taking their seats.

    I should also point out that, because you didn’t give us a concrete example of how these change, my mind naturally recalled “Jingle Bells, Batman smells…” I’m pretty sure that’s not what you’re talking about, but…

    I hope you enjoy the holiday season and I look forward to reading these posts in 2017.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Catholic churches only sing the first verse? Is that a religious issue or just a time saver?

      You’re right about examples: It would’ve been good to have some. The only one I can think of right now is a verse of some carol or other that had a phrase about the baby Jesus “abhorring not the virgin’s womb.” Which–excuse me–struck us as just plain weird. The version of “Silent Night” that I joined in on changed the first line to “Silent the night, holy the night,” and then the second and third verses were completely different that the ones I know. But it’s an unusual version, even from here.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the variations ! “The Cherry Tree Carol” has Mary asking Joseph to pick her a cherry from a nearby tree. Joseph says ” Let the father of the baby get you one.” So “from out Mary’s womb” Jesus orders the tree to bow down so Mary can pick the cherry herself. Depending on the version, Joseph is ashamed, horrified at his blasphemy, or – my personal favorite: “Mary gathered cherries/While Joseph stood around.” Replace “Mary” with any woman’s name and “Joseph” with the name of her husband, and I’ll bet you’ve got an accurate picture of the relationship.

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    • With that example, I see your point completely. Disliking the variations is absurd, and I know it. It’s one of those irrational things that we somehow hold onto anyway. This may be the year I get over it.

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  6. Reblogged this on Civil Rights Advocacy and commented:
    Here’s an interesting blog from a Jewish guy who grew up in the US and now lives in Cornwall, England explaining his like of and iffiness with Christmas carols.

    Here’s a list of some of the December holidays that people from around the world celebrate during December:

    Tuesday, December 6 St. Nicholas Day Austria
    Tuesday, December 6 Feast of St. Nicholas (Bari) Italy
    Wednesday, December 7 Feast of St. Ambrose (Milan) Italy
    Monday, December 12 Day of the Virgin Guadalupe Mexico
    Monday, December 12 Pointsettia Day
    Wednesday, December 14 Full Moon Lunar
    Wednesday, December 21 Winter Solstice (GMT) Solar and China
    Friday, December 23 Festivus
    Saturday, December 24 Christmas Eve General
    Sunday, December 25 Christmas General
    Sunday, December 25 Hanukkah Jewish
    Monday, December 26 St. Stephan’s Day Austria
    Monday, December 26 Boxing Day Canada
    Monday, December 26 St. Stephen’s Day Christian
    Monday, December 26 Second Christmas Germany
    Saturday, December 31 New Years Eve

    I agree with his tolerance statement about this Holiday season.

    “Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, or celebrated if I’m late, I wish you a good one. And if you don’t celebrate anything, I wish you a moment of quiet amid all the aggressive celebrating.”

    Happy Holidays Everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very nice sentiment, Ellen. There is a place for everyone & all belief systems. There is also room for carols & traditions of all types as well. Thanks for reminding us. I wish you & Wild Thing a terrific holiday season & a prosperous New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m not close to Jewish but I sorta likes this version. All Carols should be folk music as in all “Folk” should sing them…whatever the melody, lyrics, and whatever. Almost everything comes from pre-Christianity…life is just history over and over again. The song usually does remain the same; the words and the melody may just be different. ~~dru~~

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the link. I’ll have to listen to it later–I’m sitting here with no earphones and several people around who won’t want to listen with me. In the meantime, I wish you a merry whatever you celebrate, in whatever way you like to celebrate it.

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  9. I am very attached to carols. Feel they belong to a shared pot of songs, added to from all over. My favourite is the Coventry Carol – so poignant and mournful. Oh – I can be so sentimental, it’s true. Happy Christmas however you do it.

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  10. Hehe, I like this stance, I like you. It’s hard to let aggressives be aggressive, even if it’s about something as ‘innocent’ as religious holidays. I remember when my normally quite docile school-friends went all out aggressive this time of year, lightening candles in the class (it was still Yugoslavia, Christmas was not even mentioned – only in 1986 the governing Communist Party officially wished Merry Christmas to its people on the TV), singing Silent Night, acting all funny all of a sudden. In my family, religion was not discussed as something palpable or even existing. I was watching my school-friends in awe, suddenly realising that the world with such people in it who are ambitious (one is present Minister in Slovenian government), cutthroat, egoist, false, unjust, never willing to fight for the underdog but would fight for their right to believe in tall tales – such a world does not bode well. Wishing you sanity, good will and fun.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting snapshot of Yugoslavia. Thanks for writing it. Such strange creatures we humans are. I’m fascinated by the survival of banned belief systems–Christianity in the Soviet bloc; Judaism during the centuries when it was banned in Spain. I don’t hold to either set of beliefs, as you know, but am impressed with their continuation.

      I hope I’m wrong, but it looks to me like the world–or large parts of it–are in for a rough ride in the coming years. Wishing you well, and fervently wishing myself wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Fascinating post Ellen and love your take on carols there and here. Quite right about the solstice pagan connection too. Chritianisation retained that midwinter festival and altered it I what we regard as Christmas Day now. You could call it a tactical decision in order to convert people to Christianity without the loss of their own festival. The whole history of that is fascinating.

    The message, however, is the important bit.

    Excellent post and I hope you are having a wonderful day 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for both the comments and the good wishes, Gary. Since Christmas and Hanukkah overlap this year, we’re celebrating both simultaneously, and doing some serious damage (in the guise of decoration) to a batch of odd-shaped sugar cookies. Wishing you the best of the season.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You are very welcome Ellen. I must apologise for not visiting more two. Time just seems to fly past these days and it’s left me neglecting fellow bloggers. Not good that!! Your celebrations sound brilliant too. Or should that be two for the price of one? I hope 2017 treats you well and hope to be popping over more often 😊

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m in the same shape as far as visiting other blogs–I drop in now and then, but real life needs a bit more of me than it used to and blog-visiting is, I’m sorry to say, one of the things I can steal time from. So, yes, I know what you mean and I appreciate the visit.

          Let’s keep our fingers crossed for 2017.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Sadly, that’s very true…you can easily lose time visiting blogs or trolling through social media platforms. It’s not that we don’t want to,it’s more a case of being realistic and not neglecting other things that need doing.
            Hopefully 2017 will be reflected on pleasantly and with good memories…and hopefully a smaller list of celebrity omissions!

            Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Time for a New Age of Enlightenment | Nel's New Day

    • I’m guessing you mean the photo. I’ve used it for a long time and it still makes me laugh, but a blogger who uses a photo with a knit cap pulled down over her eyes photoshopped them together. Not a great look, as it turns out.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. You know, I’ve never stopped to question that lyric “round yon virgin” before. I think somewhere in my pre-agnostic childhood, I thought they were describing her as being fat–but in a nice way.

    Liked by 2 people

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