How Christmas carols preserve legendary folklore using ancient sounds that are primal and lyrically gory

Christmas time affords a once in a year opportunity to enjoy good food with its best accompaniment, music

                            How Christmas carols preserve legendary folklore using ancient sounds that are primal and lyrically gory
Choristers from the Salisbury Cathedral Choir (Getty Images)

In stark contrast to all the Hallmark sentiment, passed off as goodwill and joy for the utter commercialization of Christmas which in the current year began in October, your ears may chance upon some ancient sounds, primal and lyrically gory. 

Post the Black Friday shopping spree, while lugging back the new flat screen you got at such a deal it was practically a steal, you may hearken the 16th-century carol ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ which declares, “To save poor souls from Satan's power, Which long time had gone astray, Oh tidings of comfort and joy.” 

The carol further speaks of angel Gabriel assuring a pregnant Mary, “Fear not, then said the Angel, Let nothing you affright, This day is born a Savior, Of virtue, power and might; So frequently to vanquish all, The friends of Satan quite. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.” 

It’s true Christmas has had the power to mine the best of music through time immemorial. Before its profit-oriented ways, and during less prosperous times in centuries long gone, when surviving the year was a big IF, Christmas time afforded a once in a year opportunity to enjoy good food with its best accompaniment, music. 

Extend that through times where survival became a lot more of given and Winter’s bareness afforded no employment in fields, with the year’s harvest done, Christmas music helped get through the darkness.  

And then further on to Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ (40s), the 50s saw Brenda Lee’s ‘Rockin around the Christmas tree’ and Harry Belafonte’s ‘Mary’s Boy Child’, Nat King Cole’s ‘O’ Holy Night’ (60s); Jackson 5 probably captured the childhood aspect of it best with ‘Santa Claus is comin’ to town’ (70s), The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’, George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’ (80s), Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’ (90s) and the umpteen cringy, white-savior versions of ‘Do they know it’s Christmas’, to name mainstream occurrences. 

Here is also some great Christmas music that didn’t quite enjoy mainstream success but musically confirms the point, the season has arguably brought out the best in artists. And just like the above mentioned, mimics the decades they were created in, from the happy chestnut-roasting feeling of the post-war era to the burst in creative freedom and expression in the 60s and 70s, to the optimism of the 90s and the individualism of the 2000s, the medieval art too very much mirrors the signs of its times. 

Take for instance the 1853 carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’, penned by English hymn-writer John Mason Neale that spoke of a 10th-century king who braved the fiercest of winters on Christmas Eve to trek to meet one his subjects at the edge of his kingdom. No easy feat considering the king could be warm in his castle, and his page tries best to put him off saying, "Sire, he lives a good league hence, underneath the mountain; Right against the forest fence, by Saint Agnes' fountain." 

But Wenceslas is determined: "Bring me flesh, and bring me wine, bring me pine logs hither: Thou and I shall see him dine, when we bear them thither." And while the ordeal proves too much for the delicate page who sighs, "Sire, the night is darker now, and the wind blows stronger; Fails my heart, I know not how; I can go no longer," Wenceslas asks him to follow behind and step into the very feet marks the king is making in the snow. 

Oh supernatural glory! Warmth from the brave king’s footsteps miraculously warm the page and they meet the “yonder peasant”. Wenceslas’ bravery and goodwill were blessed in supernatural ways, surely something for folks to sing about for centuries to come. The song ends with a word of encouragement, “Therefore, Christian men, be sure, wealth or rank possessing, Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.” 

The 1857 composition ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ speak of the Magi and while the Bible doesn’t mention how many they were, only that they were three types of gifts, the hymn personifies them as three kings. Thus, taking up on folklore and adding to the mythos. 

The carol speaks of the brave kings who “traverse afar, Field and fountain, Moor and mountain, Following yonder Star.” Their astronomical navigation skills are made magic with the chorus, “O Star of Wonder, Star of Night, Star with Royal Beauty bright, Westward leading, Still proceeding, Guide us to Thy perfect Light.” 

Furthermore, the kings are given names and symbolism attributed to their gifts. King 1 "Gaspard’s" gift signifies royalty, “Born a King on Bethlehem plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again, King forever, Ceasing never, Over us all to reign.” 

Melchior, having traveled from the East, is here to remind the West that incense shouldn’t be associated with holiness only in the East: “Frankincense to offer have I, Incense owns a Deity nigh.” And Balthazar prophesizes the impending gruesome death having brought Myrrh used to embalm bodies before funerals: “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume, Breathes a life of gathering gloom; — Sorrowing, sighing, Bleeding, dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” 

The old carols, with their bygone haunting chords that never see the light of day during any other time of the year, like in ‘Oh holy night’, will continue to be revisited by the likes of Nat King Cole and Mariah Carey. The tune of the 1710 Latin number ‘Veni, veni Emmanuel,’ introduced into English in 1861 with “Draw nigh, draw nigh, Emmanuel, And ransom captive Israel, That mourns in lonely exile here, Until the Son of God appear; Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel, Shall be born for thee, O Israel!” may talk of joy, but its evocatively gothic eeriness will forever haunt cathedrals come Winter’s solstice.  

The carols of yesteryear are full of folklore and have indeed served as an instrument to add to the canon of existing folklore. It’s perhaps not impossible to imagine that century into the future, a listener may assume Eartha Kitt was legitimately Mrs. Claus after listening to her 1953 hit ‘Santa Baby’.

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