Friday, December 26, 2008

Underrated Christmas Songs

One of the things I look forward to most about this time of year is the music. I love Christmas music and think it has a wonderful appeal not only to the majestic truth of Our Savior's Incarnation, but from a musical standpoint I think it is some of the most beautiful music ever composed. I'm speaking, of course, of true Christmas music, not secular tunes like Winter Wonderland, the likes of which is repeated so ad nauseam that I cannot see how the cheesy line about "Parson Brown" is even remotely amusing to anybody anymore.

However, I am still conflicted. There is such an amazing corpus of religious Christmas music available out there, yet year after year we seem to stick to the same, tired dozen or so songs that we have always sung. Joy to the World. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. We Three Kings (really an Epiphany song). Silent Night. The First Noel. Come All Ye Faithful. O Come, O Come Emmanuel (technically an Advent song). Angels We Have Heard On High. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. Away in a Manger. What Child is This? Taken in isolation, these are all great songs. They are some of the best loved melodies of all time. I still get teary eyed at times when I hear a really good rendering of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing or The First Noel.

The problem is that these songs are not only played for Christmas Masses in Church, but are also repeated endlessly in the secular world. From Thanksgiving on we hear these songs in Wal-Mart, on the phone when we are on hold with a utility company, over the annoying local station that plays Christmas music 24/7, on the Musak at McDonalds, at the office Christmas party. We are utterly inundated. Therefore, these hymns, beautiful in themselves, come to be robbed of much of their majesty by the time we hear them on Christmas.

Furthermore, since Christmas is traditionally an octave in the Catholic Church, we end up hearing these songs in Mass for eight more days after the Christmas Vigil. By that time I usually find myself utterly exhausted by them, and dealing with some sort of spiritual jet-lag: that is, the secular world has moved on past Christmas but spiritually I am supposed to be still singing Christmas songs as late as the first week of January. Another ill side effect of living in a culture where the sacred and the secular are so at odds.

But this year I have really dug down into some of the lesser known Christmas carols and composed a list of my top five favorite non-conventional Christmas carols. Any one of these would be great to be incorporated into a Christmastide liturgy, though perhaps not all for participation by the congregation; some would be better just sung by a skilled choir. So, get ready for


I've posted the lyrics in italics below each of the videos with a little commentary on what I like about the song. Enjoy.

Number Five: The Holly and the Ivy

The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown, Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown. Refrain: Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer, The playing of the merry organ, sweet singing in the choir. The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower, And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet saviour (Refrain). The holly bears a berry As red as any blood And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ To do poor sinners good (Refrain).The holly bears a prickle As sharp as any thorn; And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ On Christmas Day in the morn (Refrain). The holly bears a bark As bitter as any gall; And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ For to redeem us all (Refrain).

Some dismiss this song as too pagan because of its references to holly and ivy and their connection to Norse paganism. I would say that a revival of Norse paganism is probably the last thing we need to worry about in our liturgies (unless you live in the neo-pagan Diocese of Albequerque), and that any connection with medieval tradition is good; but I would also point out that despite the Nordic elements, the verses are very Christian and contain some beautiful medieval typology regarding the various elements of the holly plant and how they symbolize Christ. This tune is believed to be over a thousand years old, and the reference to the organ as "merry" points to a very Catholic origin for this hymn, since English literature in the post-Reformation times always refers to the organ as "somber" or "majestic."

The arrangement above is not my favorite, though it is by far the most well known. The best arrangement I know of this song I have only ever heard on this CD; I have actually uploaded this version onto YouTube and made my own video of it, which you can see here. I highly recommend listening to this if you are only familiar with the popular arrangement; It is more upbeat and contains alternating parts for males and female voices, and (in my opinion) does a much better job of matching the text to the music. I am not sure, but I think the arrangement may be by Robert Shaw.

Number Four: Lo, How a Rose Ere' Bloometh

Lo how a rose e'er blooming From tender stem hath sprung Of Jesse's lineage coming As seers of old have sung. It came a floweret bright Amid the cold of winter When half spent 'twas the night. Isaiah 'twas foretold it, This rose I have in mind. With Mary we behold it The Virgins mother kind. To show His love so bright She bore for us a Savior when half spent was that night. O flower whose fragrance tender With sweetness fills the airDispel in Glorious splendor. The darkness everywhere True man yet very God From sin and death now save us And share our human load.

This is undoubtedly one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time, and to be fair, I have heard it included in the Christmas liturgy at some parishes, though not as frequently as I would like. Its typology is simple yet profound, based on the Book of Isaiah, speaking of Jesus as the Root of Jesse and the Branch of the House of David, not unlike the O Antiphon for December 19th, O Radix Jesse. Of all the hymns for Christmas, I think this one best expresses the wonder with which we marvel at the Incarnation of the Word. Charlotte Church actually has a version of this that is really beautiful.

Number Three: King Jesus Hath a Garden

King Jesus hath a garden, full of divers flowers,Where I go culling posies gay, all times and hours. Refrain: There naught is heard but Paradise bird, Harp, dulcimer, lute,With cymbal, trump and tymbal, And the tender, soothing flute. The Lily, white in blossom there, is Chastity:The Violet, with sweet perfume, Humility (Refrain). The bonny Damask-rose is known as Patience: The blithe and thrifty Marygold, Obedience (Refrain). The Crown Imperial bloometh too in yonder place,'Tis Charity, of stock divine, the flower of grace (Refrain). Yet, 'mid the brave, the bravest prize of all may claim The Star of Bethlem-Jesus-bless'd be his Name! (Refrain). Ah! Jesu Lord, my heal and weal, my bliss complete, Make thou my heart thy garden-plot, fair, trim and neat (Refrain).

I think of all the hymns listed here, this one has some of the most beautiful typology, in which the classic theme of comparing virtues to different flowers is taken up. This song is very contrary to the modern mindset, in which something like a flower is seen only in context of its scientific or biological category and without any typological consideration as to what the flower as such may represent in the bigger picture. I think this hymn is a great meditation on virtue and the beauty of the good life, and though it does not have anything to do with Christmas per se, it is traditionally labeled as a Christmas song and this seems to be fitting for such a lovely song on the garden of Christ.

Number Two: Hail, Blessed Virgin Mary

Hail! Blessed Virgin Mary! For so, when he did meet thee Spake mighty Gabriel, and thus we greet thee. Come weal, come woe, our hymn shall never vary. Hail! Blessed Virgin Mary!Hail! Blessed Virgin Mary! Ave! Ave Maria! To gladden priest and people The angelus shall ring from every steeple,To sound his virgin birth. Alleluia! Ave! Ave Maria! Ave! Ave Maria! Archangels chant, 'Hosanna!'And, 'Holy! Holy! Holy!' Before the Infant born of thee, thou lowly, Aye-maiden child of Joachim and Anna. Archangels chant Hosanna! Archangels chant Hosanna!

This song is a straightforward hymn of praise. Can there be any doubt about it with all the hosannas, aves, alleluias and hails? Despite being a very simple, yet powerful melody and lyrics very accessible to the common person. I have for some reason never heard this beautiful hymn incorporated into any liturgy, whether Christmas or Marian. It's reference to the "angelus" ringing from every steeple marks it as unquestionably Catholic and fitting for any Marian feast, or especially for the Nativity.

Number One: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

The tree of life my soul hath seen, Laden with fruit and always green:The trees of nature fruitless be Compared with Christ the apple tree. His beauty doth all things excel: By faith I know, but ne'er can tell The glory which I now can see In Jesus Christ the apple tree. For happiness I long have sought, And pleasure dearly I have bought: I missed of all; but now I see' Tis found in Christ the apple tree. I'm weary with my former toil, Here I will sit and rest awhile: Under the shadow I will be, Of Jesus Christ the apple tree. This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, It keeps my dying faith alive; Which makes my soul in haste to be With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

Besides having a beautiful melody, this song has much to endear itself to us: it speaks of the bitterness of the world and compares the beauty of Christ with the most beautiful of all blossoms, that of the apple tree. The comparisons throughout between the tree of life, Jesus, and the apple tree are very vivid and do what allegory does best: fuse images of the beautiful according in the natural world with the spiritually beautiful truths of the faith. A very wonderful and edifying song.

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Besides Hail, Blessed Virgin Mary, all these songs have one thing in common: a rich typological vocabulary that helps our minds rise to marveling at the heavenly truths of the faith by means of beautiful images from the natural world. I want to issue a challenge to pastors, liturgists and music directors: next Christmas, consider temporarily retiring some of the weary old popular songs that we here year after year and incorporate some of these lovely but underappreciated classics into your Christmas/Advent lineup. You will be doing everybody a big favor.


Kate said...

You mentioned two of my favorites; Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, and Lo how a rose. I also love (and seldom, since moving to the US, hear) the Huron Carol. My other favorite is Once in Royal Davids City. Oh, and 'Bring a Torch, Jeanette' which is a lovely carol.

But I really can't complain about the popular canon either. I could sing Christmas hymns and carols all year long and not tire of them.

Athanasius said...

From Thanksgiving on we hear these songs in Wal-Mart

What are you talking about? The day after Halloween the garden center was converted to Santa's little tree shop and Christmas music was blaring, and will be for about another week.

On the other hand being a backroom manager means I get to walk external storage and use the forklift a lot, so I missed out on quite a bit of the nonsense!

Anonymous said...

I heard "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" for the first time several years ago and shed a few tears. I had forgotten about it since then. Thanks for posting this beautiful recording and also for the lyrics.


EmilyS said...

What a great question! Here are a few:

Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella.

Balulalow. I believe this is an old Scottish carol. Very haunting.

In Dulce Jubilo. The original Bach version of "Good Christian Men Rejoice."

Alma Redemptorist Mater, by Palestrina. A classic!

Biebl's Ave Maria. It would be wonderful for Annunciation primarily, but also for Christmas, due to its emphasis on the Incarnation. (It is incredible to sing, too). The end can move me to tears. I cannot imagine a more heartfelt "Sancta Maria..."

Just women, in Hungary:

Men and women, in Manila:

EmilyS said...

Here is one more beauty:

Gabriel's Message, sung by the Sixteen.

Jason Bond Picks Reviewer said...

ebook on this topic (at least one section of it) here:

john said...

Great list! I love non-traditional Christmas songs. Here's a playlist of some lesser-known Christmas music: