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    Deck the Halls with Christmas Carol Ratings {A-I}

    by Papa Redcloud

    Here is a full deck of Christmas carols rated by someone (admittedly yours truly), who obviously is himself somewhat shy of a full deck. There are, of course, many more carols, including very famous ones. The absence of a carol means that it has yet to be rated, not that it is unworthy. There may be omitted songs worthy of the highest ranking. Carols are ranked one to five stars. Brackets indicate a range: for example **(**) means that the carol rates 2 stars ordinarily, but can in certain versions or performances rank more highly.

    Adam lay ybounden. Esoteric ancient English carol about Adam. The tune, once heard, sticks in the mind like chewing gum on the underside of a table. Lessons and Carols types (i.e. Anglicans) portray Jesus as the second Adam, thus making Adam, and everything else in the Old Testament, relevant at Christmas. What I like in the carol text is the admission that all this religion stuff is not real, that the clerkes (clergy) merely found it in a book. Bravo for mediaeval lay cynicism. ***

    All Hail to the Days. Charming tune, with much olde English secular spirit, though too hard to sing. A good instrumental, choral, or soloist piece. Comes with several alternate titles (eg. "In Praise of Christmas"), making it hard to look up in carol books. The concluding aspiration-"to drive the cold winter away"-is hard to take issue with. ****

    Angels We Have Heard on High. The words and music to the verse are as trivial as anything in the Christmas canon. But the refrain-in Latin!-makes a glorious save. Non-singers love to shout out their Glo-o-o-o-rias with all the gusto they can get. A variant verse introduction to the same refrain is "Ding Dong Merrily on High." Thus Monty Python's "Let's have a little ding dong!" These carols come from a French source and are confusingly similar to the less well-known, but pleasing, French Noël, "Angels From the Realms of Glory." ***

    Angelus ad Virginem. A good Latin carol, too little known. The ancient tune stayed with me for one whole Christmas season. In general this could be a bad thing-think of all those commercial jingles and dubious pop tunes that set up household, unwanted, in your head and cannot be evicted. In this case it was a good thing, a fine leitmotif for a snowy, spiritual season. ****

    Away in a Manger. Children's carol with so much about mothers and babies it is almost obstetric. Friendly beasts, too. There are at least four tunes, three quite well known. Fights have been known to break out over which tune is the "real" one. One version is associated with Luther, who was a known manger-fetishist. Elizabeth Poston wrote fine descants for two non-Luther versions. Is it over-exposed? Maybe, maybe not. **(*)

    Boar's Head Carol. Rollicking, ancient festal call-and-response song with a Latin mock-ecclesiastical refrain. Suggests dissipated and learned rites at an olde English university. Our pleasure in singing this is intensified by our modern revulsion at the prospect of actually partaking of a boar's head. The Unitarian perversion into a seasonal song about a coffee urn is to be avoided at all cost. ***(*)

    Carol of the Birds. This one is for the birds. Literally. The various species of birds do all the talking and get quite spoony about the manger story. This is best listened to (not sung-it is hard!) in the original Catalan. The tune is gorgeous and does indeed suggest the rising and swooping flight of birds. ****

    Cherry Tree Carol. There are lots of tunes for this one, some better than others. A long non-biblical story about Mary's food cravings and Joseph's resentfulness at being a cuckold. Soap opera material in olde England and early America. Not for church, but great for folk-singers. **(*)

    The Christmas Song. The worst thing about this bit of 20th century semi-Jazz pap is that the composer had the gall to call to call it "the" Christmas song. Hello? Aren't there about two million supremely familiar Christmas songs already? What makes this one the generic king? Well, I guess that it is so, so generic. For "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire" seems to be meant to hit all the bases for secular sentimentality. The best thing about it is that the composer, singer Mel Torme, was known by the soubriquet, "The Velvet Fog." **

    Coventry Carol. An ancient modal, haunting lullaby carol about slaughtering babies. We need more coverage of the dark side of Christmas. Ancient and modernized versions differ slightly in rhythm and harmony. Prefer the older one. Not as well-known as most "top forty" carols, but stays with us because a part of us knows that what they have told us just isn't all true. There is a price to be paid for all the joy and the bill is sent after the holiday season. Best sung by people who like to show off that they can sing harmony parts. ***(*)

    Deck the Halls. The original fa la la la la. Simple, highly over-exposed tune. Forgetable and dispensable, except for now risqué-sounding secular words: "don we now our gay apparel" which for me conjures up a classic cartoon from Playboy magazine; "Troll, the ancient yuletide carol" suggests Norwegian tom-foolery and rhymes carol with barrel. Shun all modernized words. **(*)

    D'ou viens tu, Bergère? A French Canadian carol, known only to Canadians. Do not sing it in translation, but enjoy the frisson of singing in partially-understood French, preferably with a Chicoutimi accent. A bit arcane, but pleasant. And it reminds you that shepherds come in both genders. ***

    Down in Yon Forest. A dark carol with lots of blood and gore. It sounds like a gruesome English or backwoods American ballad that has been given a light and ineffective Christmas makeover. It makes one suspect that Mary's delivery has gone disastrously wrong. A good counterpoint to some of the season's brighter numbers, but it does make you wonder what those anonymous folk were smoking. ***

    The First Nowell. This one, like Bing Crosby's money, has no personality. I have heard it spiced up well with descants, but good descants can fix practically anything. Just play them loud enough so that you cannot hear the original words or tune. *(*)

    Gloucestershire Wassail. There are many wassails, usually associated with a particular English (and less frequently American, eg. Kentucky) locale. This is a simple but jolly one, better than some, but nowhere near the best. Full of antics with butlers and maids and not so covert threats by the singers about what they will do if served inferior beer. None of that Budweiser, we want Sam Adams! Always a good choice. ***

    Go Tell It on the Mountain. An unlikeable tune and words that suggest summer revival tents more than icy Christmas. Adopted by those who wish to add American content into the season. Forget it: the British do it better. **

    God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen. A good tune that has a nice "olde English" feel. Although over-exposed at Christmas, it exists in quite varied and interesting arrangements. The text is marred by sexism and a mention of Satan. Although it tells the Christmas story, it is perceived as secular and not admitted in pety-minded churches. The fact that many people misplace the comma in the first line/title, and thus misinterpret the whole thing, is a plus. And don't get me talking about "the witch, his mother Mary." ****

    Good King Wenceslas. This rather pokey, though insidious and over-done, tune is really a spring carol. Christmas soaks up all the good choral round-dance tunes from the rest of the year. Now we can't do choral round-dancing in May anymore! It is good to have a Christmas (well, day after Christmas or Boxing Day) carol with a different story. Is there a gay sub-text? Enquiring minds want to know. And it reminds one of youth in Prague. Ah youth! ***

    Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. At best a rather mediocre musical effort by Mendelssohn. I like the Midsummer Night's Dream music better. It has inspired a rather splendid brass fanfare. Much in evidence in It's a Wonderful Life. The text is orthodoxly theological in the extreme, thus the hymn is shunned by Unitarian Universalists. Even the Peanuts characters could not stomache them and in their Christmas special sang instead the more ecumenical "Lu lu lu lu lu lu loo." *(*)

    Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Super-sentimental early 20th-century song that might have dwelled in Mel Torme depths had not Judy Garland sung it during the wartime movie, "Meet Me in St. Louis." The words were altered and darkened for this occasion, telling us that though things are not the way we want them this Christmas, "we'll have to muddle through somehow." In both old and new versions we are asked "to make the Yuletide gay." The music improves with acquaintance and proves surprisingly amenable to contrapuntal elaboration. **(**)

    The Holly and the Ivy. The familiar tune is vin ordinaire compared to the rare vintages offered by alternate, but well-established melodies. The words are a bit gruesome in spots. The plant imagery in the verses, and the running deer and the sunrises of the chorus, show this one to be a pagan ditty with Christian rouge only thinly applied. Leave out the Jesus verses and pretend you are a Druid. **(**)

    Huron Carol. Canadian and native North American content. Written by Jesuits for a soon-to-be-extirpated tribe. Pleasingly esoteric to all but Canadians, who are sick to death of it. I like carols that mention the word "moon" even if it means month. Gitchee Manitou is, however, a bit much. Best sung in a medley after "Land of the Silver Birch, Home of the Beaver." ***

    I Saw Three Ships. Simple tune, but not as often done as you might think. The words have an old-fashioned popular, almost pagan, quality that make them ever-refreshing: who can resist the idea of ships sailing into land-locked Bethlehem and the idea of "our saviour Christ and his lady"? After about 12 verses, however, this one can get tedious. ***

    I Wonder as I Wander. Collecting this folksong justifies John Niles's existence. It puts other American carol efforts, folk and otherwise, in the shade. The title conveys a wonderful image, and who doesn't love to sing about "poor or'ny people"? And Mary "birthed" Jesus! Shades of Butterfly McQueen in Gone with the Wind. The tune is meditative in a semi-despondent way. Gets you in the mood for the death of the sun/son. ****

    Il est né. Ubiquitous French carol, though relatively rare in the States. Jolly, but trite, tune that reminds one pleasingly of how tolerable "The Little Drummer Boy" might have been had it been any good and in French. **

    In Dulci Jubilo. A German carol in Latin with a simple-minded tune. Lots of associations with Bach, who set it numerous times. I don't know what he saw in it. A little too well-known. Worse with sexist English words, "Good Christian Men Rejoice." **

    In the Bleak Mid-Winter. The world's best first verse for a carol, followed by stuff that is execrable. Sing the first over and over. It has two tunes, and since both are splendid, this one almost counts as two carols. The charming Holst tune is not well-known, but cognoscenti can sing it at the drop of a hat. The Darke tune, even better, is known only to those who regularly listen to the annual Cambridge Service of Lessons and Carols. ****(*)

    It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. Wonderful 19th-century Unitarian anti-war carol partly sunk by a mediocre tune. But anything that emphasizes social conscience during the rather complacent holiday season is to be encouraged. That it is not quite kosher in orthodox circles is a plus. ***

    Stay tuned next week for the exciting conclusion! J-Z.

    *

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