Sunday, 27 December 2009

Christmas songs

My favourite Christmas songs (a post inspired by Jarred):

The Holly and the Ivy (preferably in a Pagan version as I don't agree with the theology of the Christian version). I love the evocation of the solstice fire and its connection with the holly berries.
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

O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer...
Along the same lines, I also like The Sans Day Carol:
And the first tree in the greenwood, it is the holly.
But again I prefer a Pagan version written by a friend of mine, as I don't like the theology of the Christian version.

I also really like O Little Town of Bethlehem (though I prefer the Unitarian version). I love these lines:
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
It makes me think of the deep blue midnight and the shining golden light of the stable reflecting on the narrow stone streets of a Middle Eastern town.

It also perhaps implies that the miracle of the incarnation is endlessly repeated, and that the Divine child is reborn in each new birth, as John Andrew Storey's marvellous hymn, The Universal Incarnation, shows:
Each time a girl or boy is born,
Incarnate deity we find.
Another of my favourite carols is Silent Night, which always reminds me of the Christmas truce of 1914, when the British troops heard the German troops singing this carol, and joined in across No-man's Land. I find the story of the Christmas truce incredibly moving, and only wish that it could have been extended beyond Christmas.

Another favourite (written by a Unitarian) is It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, which is focused on the splendour and beauty of peace, and the angels as its messengers:
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet-bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendours fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
A new favourite, with which I was previously unfamiliar, but was introduced to me by Rev Lindy Latham, is People Look East by Eleanor Farjeon (who also wrote Morning Has Broken, apparently). I like People Look East because of its mystical and nature-inspired imagery. It is actually an Advent hymn, but it's beautiful anyway.

As an evocation of the compassion and giving associated with Christmas, I must include Good King Wenceslas. And this carol has just taken on a new meaning for me, as I was recently informed that Wenceslas was in a same-sex relationship with his page, Podiven. Both were martyred by Wenceslas' political opponents.

I also like the tune of Joy to the World (and the Unitarian version of the lyrics). Its author was Isaac Watts, the son of a Nonconformist (Independent) minister, and the music was written by George Frederick Handel (1685-1759). It's a very rousing tune.

After Christmas, it was traditional to wassail (wish health to) houses and apple trees. One of my favourite wassail songs is The Gower Wassail, which has the beautiful lines:
We know by the moon that we are not too soon
And we know by the sky that we are not too high
And we know by the stars that we are not too far
And we know by the ground that we are within sound

One of the things that I love about Christmas is the way that the Christian and Pagan elements of it are inextricably fused together. You can't really have one without the other, and they enhance and complement each other.


Jarred said...

Very cool! Sadly, I've not heard of some of the songs you mentioned before.

Yewtree said...

Yes most of the more universalist Unitarian ones are not widely known.