So, it’s December 21. Shall I talk about how it’s the darkest day of the year? How I was really excited about how warm it was a few days ago? (And by warm, I mean slightly above freezing.) Perhaps I could muse upon how much I hate pugs…

Nah. It’s almost Christmas. I should do something cheery. In the spirit of Stephen Mulder’s favorite vs. best game, I’ll play favorite vs. least favorite, a completely subjective game and thus the dolt cousin of favorite vs. best.

Today’s topic: Christmas carols.

Least favorite: “Go Tell It on the Mountain”

It should not be possible for anyone to dislike a song about Jesus’ birth as much as I dislike this song. Maybe it’s the stupid high notes (a problem in many Christmas songs, actually), or the ridiculous amount of verses (making those high notes creakier and creakier on each go-round), or the yelling kids that inevitably end up ordering congregations to “GO tell it on the MOUNTAIN” every year in the Christmas pageant. Or maybe it’s that the singers of the song never seem actually go and tell it. They just command others to go and tell. By the end of the ordeal, I want to tell the howling kids to go climb the dang mountain themselves.

Favorite: “O Come O Come, Emmanuel”

While I can’t say this is the single best Christmas carol ever, I can definitely say it is my favorite. (“Silent Night” comes in second, partly for falsely proprietary reasons—it’s “Stille Nacht” in German.) On a superficial level, I have loved its melancholy melody ever since I heard this Mannheim Steamroller version.

The song has had multiple iterations in its history. The lyrics date back to a Latin poem from the twelfth century, and French Franciscan nuns sang the hymn as a funeral procession in the 1400s. (No wonder it’s so dour.) In the 1850s, John Mason Neale translated the hymn to English after he found it languishing in the Land of the Amazing Christmas Carols, where it had been hanging out for a few centuries. Eventually, much like “The Hallelujah Chorus,” the song became inextricably linked with Christmas.

The song’s message puts the angel on the tree for me. The verses, drawn from passages in Isaiah, remind us of Israel’s plaintive cry for a messiah. We have plenty of carols about joyful exuberance (obvious example: “Joy to the World”) and stately cheer (“Good Christian Men, Rejoice” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”). We even have songs of quiet reflection (“O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night”). But no other popular Christmas carols that I know of emphasize the necessity of Christmas. In the United States and many other countries today, Christmas seems like a month-long festivity complete with parties, presents, and treats in the breakroom, but Christmas is a prerequisite for Good Friday. Jesus was born to die, but we usually don’t like our Christmas carols reminding us of that.

I suppose I did end up talking about the darkness on December 21. But although Jesus hasn’t come yet in the liturgical year, we know he comes soon.

***

Does anyone else know of Christmas carols that get at the desperation of Christmas? The closest Christmas hymn to “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” content-wise is “Salvation Is Created,” which isn’t very well known or a Christmas carol, exactly.

1 Comment

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    I’ll stump for Go Tell It on the Mountain. Sure it’s not the best carol out there (and one of the most difficult for screaming children), but there are things you can do with the arrangement to make it more palatable. There are some good choral versions out there, and even Simon & Garfunkel did a decent version on their debut album.

    In it’s place I’ll suggest Joy to the World. Something about that carol just grates on me. It’s Fake Handel without any of the nuance or grandeur or impact of Actual Handel. Plus it’s ubiquitous this time of year.

    Also, since you were the one who brought up choral music with Salvation is Created (one of my all-time favorites), I’ll suggest a few other choral Christmas works that I really love: Franz Biebl’s setting of Ave Maria (which also includes portions of the Angelus) and Tomas Luis de Victoria’s setting of O Magnum Mysterium.

    Reply

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