Monday, December 17, 2007

TIRTA 7: Christmas Carols Suck

Christmas carols a) suck b) have nothing whatsoever to do with the Advent story and c) confuse the dickens out of anyone who only goes to church once a year.

Let us take some examples.

Exhibit A "not quite what we meant"

According to wikipedia, this one has been around since at least 1833 when it was included in a collection of carols. It is thought to be to a traditional tune and the author is unknown.

It also includes the rather famous line "The Which His Mother Mary", which I have seen numerous times printed in hymn books. The only good thing about this carol is when you point out to people what they have just sung, and have them try to explain why it makes perfect sense.

Exhibit B "noooo, someone make it stop"

Again according to wikipedia, we have been singing about non-crying newborn babies since at least 1885. I don't care what cuddly stories people want to tell me, small babies who don't cry are either a) extremely sick or b) dead.

Exhibit C "a crime against poetry"

Then from 1872 we have this nonsense. Only in a carol could someone get away with the rhyming couplets 'snow on snow on snow on snow'. Let us not even discuss the time of year or the likelihood of deep snow in Bethlehem (not likely). Let this just stand as a crime against poetry.

I'm boycotting stupid carols.

Things I Relearnt This Advent: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5
Part 6

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Blogger Karin said...

You want to listen to this one, Joe.

Apart from a beautiful old tune the words are very apposite for Advent, although the English translation only gives you an idea.

It has been my favourite since I was quite young.

4:17 AM  
Blogger Karin said...

P.S. Wikipedia gives a bad translation of 'Ros', according to my Dad. It's common for kids to think 'Ros' means Rose, which is also 'Rose' in German. According to Dad, 'Ros' is an old word for shoot, which would agree with the word in Isaiah. 'Röslein' should therefore be translated 'little shoot'. Although with, 'Blümelein' occuring in th last verse, perhaps a play on words is involved.

4:22 AM  
Blogger Karin said...

In fact, I think a more accurate, if less poetic, translation of the first verse, would be:

A shoot has sprung up,
from a tender root.
Just as the old ones sang (i.e. the prophets),
From Jess came the Way.
And it brought forth a little flower,
In the midst of cold Winter,
All through(?) the half night.

4:28 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

OK. Can't say that I'm overly impressed Karin, but at least it isn't pretending to be about advent.

5:07 AM  
Blogger Karin said...

Well, it tells of Christ being prophesied by Isaiah & co. so is about waiting and expectation, which is what Advent is about.

The most famous Advent carol is O Come, O Come Immanuel, of course. i think that might have something to do with the O Antiphons which started today, traditionally.

5:10 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

I don't recall there being a prophesy about roses. Anyway this is irrelevant - this carol is not part of the normal British repertoire.

I didn't know about O Antiphons. Not something I have ever experienced.

Apparently O come O come Emmanuel is much older. Which goes to show what the Victorians left us: bad carols.

5:44 AM  
Blogger Karin said...

I don't think I've explained it too well, but I did say my Dad says 'Rose' is an incorrect translation for 'Ros'.

It comes from Isaiah 11:1
"A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots."

Like I said, my Dad says 'Ros' should be translated 'shoot'.

So the first verse refers to Jesus, the long awaited 'shoot' from the root of Jesse as this verse in Isaiah is seen by some to refer to the long-awaited Messaiah.

The 'little flower' or 'Blümelein' is a rather flowery way of referring to Jesus as a baby.

However, it is superior to any Victorian carol I am aware of in spite of that slight lapse into sentimentality. I think a decently translated version should become part of the Advent repertoire of more British churches, especially those which enjoy more contemplative hymns and carols.

If you haven't found the wikipedia article yet, paste in the link from my first comment but add an extra en at the end, so the last word is 'entsprungen'.

I only found out about O Antiphons last year. I haven't heard them in church. Not sure what I think of them.

6:09 AM  
Blogger Karin said...

Question in my Bible reading notes today:
'How many Christmas carols can you recall in which Jesus' descent from David is mentioned?'

5:24 AM  
Blogger Joe said...


Once in Royal David's city
While Shepherds Watched

... what's the point?

5:41 AM  
Blogger Karin said...

Today's reading was Matthew 1:1-17, which gives Jesus a genealogy to show he is descended from David.

5:46 AM  
Blogger Joe said...


6:28 AM  
Blogger Karin said...

OK I've just been to a history of Christmas carols - Voices at the Door.

Adam Lay y bounden is one of the earliest we still sing and may have been written for the layity by monks. Carols seem to have started of as religious/quasi-religious songs for the layity and were not just for Christmas. The Franciscans had the bright idea of introducing songs in people's native language in order to teach them Bible stories and doctrine. It may have been they who decided to put the words to catchy folk tunes, or perhaps that was someone else's idea.

It seems people caught onto the idea and made their own up, so they may be more about celebrating and cheering up long dark evenings, with a mention of Jesus or Mary etc to make them seem appropriate for the church season. Church would have been the focus of social life historically.

At the Reformation these 'irreverent' carols were banned from churches and church music became very boring.

In the early 1700's Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady brought out a book of Psalms set to more interesting tunes and included a few of their own compostions such as While Shepherds Watched. Later that century Charles Wesley wrote Hark the Herald Angels, aka 'Curly Hark'.

There was a burst of carol writing in English in Victorian times as it took that long for the idea to really gain popularity. A number were written by Americans. This may explain why we sing so many Victorian carols.

I expect Worksop is too far for you to go, but Voices at the Door will be performed there on Friday (21st). Alternatively you can buy the CD which has lots of notes, but I don't know whether you'd enjoy the singing.

The Coventry carol is another old one as is the Carnel (crow) and the Crane.

Is it time you encouraged your church to revive the old carols?

1:24 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

I doubt they would listen.

Anyway, I'm not interested in fighting that particular battle.

2:51 AM  

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