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Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
December 21, 2013 11:02 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes it's hard to remember that there are Holiday songs that aren't about being jolly, rocking around Christmas trees, and drugging your girlfriend's drink. From the dirgelike to the hopelessly obscure, here are some Christmas carols you probably won't hear on Black Friday.

Some Christmas songs are spooky by their very nature:

O Come O Come Emmanuel - This song is so ominous it's hard to find a pop rendition outside of the Christian Rock scene.

The Huron Carol - Opens with the line "Twas in the moon of wintertime/When all the birds had fled." Delightful.

The Coventry Carol - Sweet lullaby or murder ballad? You be the judge.

Once In Royal David's City - The end credits to a movie where someone dies at the end.

In The Bleak Midwinter - The word "bleak" is right there in the title, as a warning.

What to put on the playlist when you're hoping to invite a few underworldly guests to your holiday party? Carol Of The Bells, of course.

Others go from cheerily traditional to horrorshow with a minor key arrangement and just the right feeling of doom and gloom:

Patti Smith's rendition of We Three Kings. Sorrowing, Sighing, Bleeding, Dying, indeed.

Stevie Knicks' take on Silent Night. You best be silent, or she'll put a hex on you.

Just imagine puppies crying as you listen to Sarah McLachlan's cover of Joni Mitchell's The River.

Nothing says wassail like this glitchy monotone take on Good King Wenceslas by Sufjan Stephens.

You can still find upbeat and happy Christmas songs that have mostly been kept off the Holiday retail rotation. You just have to branch out a little.

I Saw Three Ships - Why go to church on Christmas when you could hang out down at the docks?

Fairytale Of New York - Include a some references to heroin and the drunk tank to ensure the folks at Clearchannel don't take an interest.

Lou Reed was so pissed about Susan Boyle's cover of Perfect Day that he didn't get around to celebrating till February.

Bonus Unusually Upbeat Christmas Carol: Carol Of The Bells reworked into a major key! Avoid accidentally summoning any demons with this nice bright take on the cthonic holiday standard.
posted by Sara C. (95 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks to this previous post about obscure Christmas carols, I discovered this one which opens "A boar's head in hand bear I..." Stay classy, medieval revelers!
posted by Sara C. at 11:09 PM on December 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Or drugging your boyfriend's drink. Watch the whole clip to get to the Red Skelton gender role reversal part which is often overlooked.

Otherwise, good post.
posted by gramschmidt at 11:21 PM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually I picked that particular clip because it gets EXACTLY to the heart of the song.
posted by Sara C. at 11:26 PM on December 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's another interesting carol I wasn't familiar with until I fell into a Mediaeval Baebes hole: Adam Lay Ibounden.

Yes, this song is about how, had Adam not gotten the original sin ball rolling, we wouldn't be here right now singing this rad song.
posted by Sara C. at 11:32 PM on December 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


There's nothing in the drink.
posted by Artw at 12:10 AM on December 22, 2013 [28 favorites]


I don't know what it says about me that so many of these are among my favorite Christmas songs. Also, this reminds me that when I first heard The Coventry Carol, I could not believe it was a Christmas song. It's so deeply ominous.

Other, shall we say non-traditional, Christmas songs I'm fond of:

Frightened Rabbit's It's Christmas So We'll Stop, which is genuinely lovely even while being rather sad, and perfectly captures both the dysfunction and hope of the holiday season.

Sufjan Stevens' Christmas albums feature many of my favorite Christmas songs, but I have a new soft spot for Christmas Unicorn, which, I don't even know. This song is bizarre. It's like what would happen if there was acid in your eggnog.
posted by yasaman at 12:22 AM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


The thing that bothers me so much about "Baby, It's Cold Outside" isn't really so much the drink line, it's that it's weird to have this upbeat holiday standard that documents exactly what it's like to be coerced into sex.

Part of why I linked that song, and not any number of other irritating holiday pop songs, is that, like the dirge-like cries in the dark (Emanuel), or the musings on how delicious pigs' heads are (the Boar's Head carol), it's a complicated time capsule of a song that says more about the time it was written than it really says about Christmas.
posted by Sara C. at 12:25 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Baby, It's Cold Outside" can be problematic, for sure. I have heard/seen interpretations of the song which border on rape, but I have also heard/seen interpretations which paint the scenario as a playful game between two lovers who do want to be together, despite the opinions of other parties. Not knowing the intention of the original author, I think it's lazy to dismiss the song as a narrative of coercion.
posted by lholladay at 12:46 AM on December 22, 2013 [12 favorites]


Seriously though guys, there's another entire "previously" FPP about deconstructing "Baby, It's Cold Outside". There are a lot of other great links in the post and the date rape/not date rape debate is pretty derail-ey. Can we just not?
posted by Sara C. at 12:50 AM on December 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


[Reminder: Sara C., please don't threadsit your own post -- just let people participate without steering. Thanks. Also, guys, we did have the whole "Baby, It's Cold Outside" convo a couple of years ago, and it's sure been covered a lot here and elsewhere. It might be more fun not to have this entire thread become that argument again?]
posted by taz at 12:50 AM on December 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


Christmas does have a dark core if you scrape away a bit of the superficial crap. On the pagan side it's about once more gathering strength to defy the unstoppable return of darkness, cold, and potential starvation; on the Christian side it prefigures the agonising death that will be needed to patch up the irretrievable gone-wrongness of a world where babies are born into crushing poverty.

Season's greetings.
posted by Segundus at 1:10 AM on December 22, 2013 [21 favorites]


everybody needs a droneCore Xmas:Gabriel's Message, as retold by Black Walls.
posted by scruss at 1:51 AM on December 22, 2013


O Come O Come Emmanuel is an Advent hymn, not a Christmas carol, and I guess I don't get what's creepy about it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:38 AM on December 22, 2013 [9 favorites]




In case anyone hasn't already seen it: Lady Gaga and JGL singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" from the recent Muppets special.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 3:00 AM on December 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


"Not knowing the intention of the original author, I think it's lazy to dismiss the song as a narrative of coercion."

Written by a husband-wife team who performed it at parties to amuse their friends. It's meant to be gently risque but it's not really coercive.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:06 AM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Speaking of Fairytale of New York, there's also the Celtic/Irish version, which ups the bleakness up to eleven.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:08 AM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I feel vaguely offended by how Huron Carol was framed in this and I'm not sure why. Birds leave in the winter, it isn't spooky or ominous and the French folk song it was based on was chosen because it fit general tonal range and nature of First Nations music in a specific geographic area in the 17th century when it was written. I was in choir at a school named for the missionary who wrote the original lyrics, so this carol got a lot of special attention, and I don't remember anyone ever finding it creepy.
posted by variella at 3:14 AM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Now I come to think of it, the whole idea that Christmas songs are all about " rocking around Christmas trees" is pretty much an American idea, isn't it? I can't think Jona Lewis' Stop the cavalry would become a Christmas classic on the American side of the Atlantic.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:17 AM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


"I feel vaguely offended by how Huron Carol was framed in this and I'm not sure why. "

Yeah, the whole post is pretty ignorant of musical traditions beyond pop radio, and it's casually dismissive towards religious and devotional songs in living religions that use those songs liturgically -- not as a form of entertainment but as forms of worship, meditation, etc., and calling devotional music that expresses hope "creepy" because its in a minor key and not poppy enough for clear channel is just ... Well, you're right, its vaguely offensive.

But please, OP, continue to make fun of others' religious beliefs and devotional practices without having the vaguest clue what they're about, to the point where you can't distinguish carols and hymns and you mock a beloved advent hymn that dates back to the medieval era as "ominous" and inadequately poppy for your taste. Holding others' religious traditions up for ridicule for being inadequately commercial is definitely what the holidays are all about.

The post is gross. It tries to be funny, but it's ignorant and unkind.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:28 AM on December 22, 2013 [28 favorites]


O Come O Come Emmanuel is an Advent hymn, not a Christmas carol, and I guess I don't get what's creepy about it.

I think some people find it "creepy" just because it's in a minor key. And it's quite familiar to me - it made frequent appearances in church during Advent when I was growing up.

I discovered this one which opens "A boar's head in hand bear I..." Stay classy, medieval revelers!

....buh? What's odd about that? Boars are big, and a boar's head is the size of an average turkey. "The boar's head in hand bear I" isn't creepy, it's "hot DAMN we're gonna eat big tonight!" It also refers to an ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar and then feasting on the head; someone carrying a boar's head into a room was a sign that "It's party time!" It's no more weird a symbol than trimming a tree is. I mean, yeah, on the face of it cutting a tree down and then hanging things on it and keeping it in your living room like that a couple weeks is kinda weird, but the "it's a tradition" symbolism is something we collectively accept. This is the same thing.

Anyway.

Sting gets written off as "pretentious wonk with a lute" often in these quarters, but I dug his If On A Winter's Night album, precisely because he goes a little downbeat and reflective. (My father called it "morbid-feeling" when he heard it.) He goes with a lot of dark carols and downbeat minor keys and some original compositions that aren't so cheery.

But he said something pretty thought-provoking in the liner notes - that that kind of pensive introspection is something that winter kind of provokes, especially in the older agrarian societies, and that that may be a good thing. It was sort of an enforced break for the farmers - but it was cold as balls outside, so they couldn't go out and party, they were forced to hang around inside. All you could do was sit and ponder things. And sometimes that's not a bad thing. That's how you come up with the big ideas. It felt cold and dreary, and sometimes the things you come up with are indeed depressing, but having that kind of downtime and contemplating the not-so-good stuff often is good.

I was struck by it because he kind of put his finger on some vague thing I've always felt about the way Christmas is celebrated today - this kind of sense that everyone must be happy and lively 100% of the time - that's always felt like total bullshit to me. Even as a kid I wanted room for something rawer about Christmas - space for silence, room to just think. Not all the things you think about when you're stuck staring into the fire are bad, either. Contemplating death isn't always depressing, actually; death has to happen for life to happen. Things have to end before new things can begin. It's part of the package that our being born signed us up for.

And in some way the constant cheer feels like people trying to ignore that whole step of the cycle rather than accepting it's there. It also ignores the people who do get stuck out in the cold and lost in the dark - and there are lots of people who do.

Winter kind of tugs at some bit of all of us that is there to help us wrap our heads around the heavy shit that we need to wrestle with. And that bit of all of us would much rather listen to this than to the damn Barking Jingle Bells song again.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:40 AM on December 22, 2013 [40 favorites]


Yeah, the whole post is pretty ignorant of musical traditions beyond pop radio, and it's casually dismissive towards religious and devotional songs in living religions that use those songs liturgically -- not as a form of entertainment but as forms of worship, meditation, etc., and calling devotional music that expresses hope "creepy" because its in a minor key and not poppy enough for clear channel is just ... Well, you're right, its vaguely offensive.
I think this explains why the characterization of Huron Carol as 'spooky' hit a nerve with me. It's so dismissive of the historical, religious, and cultural context of the hymn. The fact it exists at all is due to a certain intersection of/conflict between cultures and religions, attempts at integration and religious conversion. Trivializing it as a ghosty dirgy Christmas song because of the melody irks me.

And in some way the constant cheer feels like people trying to ignore that whole step of the cycle rather than accepting it's there.
Yes. The minor key of some of the hymns and carols above feels more reflective than gloomy.
posted by variella at 4:14 AM on December 22, 2013




I'm a fan of Run DMC's other Christmas song.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:13 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Aw, I love O Come O Come Emmanuel! It's my favorite part of advent. Anyway, pretty much anything is better than Away in a Manger which I find both musically repellent and theologically unsound. The beginning sounds all screechy and awful and the verses make Jesus seem all magical and perfect instead of being a real baby, which I think is part of the miracle. They're also god-awfully translated from German. "Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes"? Seriously? Of course he makes crying, he's a damn baby! He might be special and holy and whatever but claiming he is completely serene all the time takes away from the miracle by denying him his humanity. Plus the entire congregation is always bad at singing it. Why can't we just sing O Holy Night instead? I love O Holy Night. Also Go Tell It on the Mountain. People don't sing Go Tell It on the Mountain enough. But mostly O Holy Night.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:22 AM on December 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


O Come O Come Emmanuel - This song is so ominous it's hard to find a pop rendition outside of the Christian Rock scene.

Or the more deadcandancey end of the goth scene. I'm fairly sure it was on a Projekt Christmas/Yule/seasonal compilation at some point in the 90s.
posted by acb at 5:26 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Coventry Carol sounds like it's about murder because it's about murder. It's about Herod's slaughter of the innocents. It's a mother's lullaby to a dead child.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel and the lighting of the Advent candles is a lovely bit of liturgy. It perfectly captures the longing of Advent and is a striking contrast to the holly jolly tone of the secular season. Don't get me wrong, I love all the other trappings of Christmas, but the 4 weeks we sing that hymn and observe that tradition help me carve out a contemplative space in my life that is much needed.
posted by Biblio at 5:26 AM on December 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


Creepy carols previously.
posted by sweetkid at 5:29 AM on December 22, 2013


OH! Also Do You Hear What I Hear? WHAT A GREAT SONG! We should sing that ALL THE TIME! THAT song is more theologically sound; "a child, a child, shivers in the cold, let us bring him silver and gold" -- yes! It's not just that a special precious miraculous baby shivers in the cold, it's that A CHILD does! What a beautifully simple statement -- a child shivers in the cold. Let us help him.*

And then the king! He says to the people "Pray for peace, people everywhere". What a nice message! This is not about some stupid baby who doesn't act like a real baby, this is about people EVERYWHERE praying for peace! This is about helping a child who shivers in the cold! Do your best, people everywhere. Pray for peace. Try to help each other. Make it better.

And the end! NOW we get to why this child is special! "He will bring us goodness and light". Oh my God, that's amazing! "Goodness and light." We are doing what we can; we are helping a child and praying for peace, but there also IS a miracle; this tiny baby, who is currently shivering in the cold like any poor child, will bring us goodness and light. The smallest, most vulnerable member of society -- a baby! A baby in a poor family whose ostensible parents aren't married! -- this tiny, vulnerable child will bring us goodness and light. Light out of the darkness.

Illumination.

Goodness and light.

THAT is a Christmas song.

*That said, I respect that "silver and gold" may not be of the MOST help in this situation; Mr. Pterodactyl has suggested amending the line to "let us bring him blankets and fire".
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:41 AM on December 22, 2013 [23 favorites]


I don't do church anymore, but I do miss some of the Advent classics, so count me as another supporter of "O Come O Come Emmanuel," although I can also see why someone would find it kind of moody and not "Christmasy."

Also, in the spirit of Christmas, could we cut Sara C. Some slack? I'm really enjoying the links, and reading her glosses in the least possible charitable way is... not so great. I beg you, my beloved MeFites, let's burn off holiday stress by posting links to songs that make the season for us.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:43 AM on December 22, 2013 [16 favorites]


I will admit, too, that Do You Hear What I Hear? Also reminds me of that bit in Battlestar Galactica when SPOILER ALERT the Olympic Carrier has just been destroyed and the President has focused entirely on the white board with the count of people on it and Billy comes in and they have a meeting or something and then he tells her, oh, also, there's an update in the numbers and she sighs and asks "How many people have we lost?" or something and he says "Oh, no, actually, it's one higher -- someone had a baby" and you can see the President just being like oh my goodness, a baby! Something so ordinary and commonplace and miraculous and amazing all at the same time! Even during all this misery and destruction, a baby! And there is hope.

Not surprisingly, that scene makes me cry.

posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:44 AM on December 22, 2013 [12 favorites]


Hey, these are all my favorites, and the ones I had not heard before are new favorites like Gabriel's Message! Haunting and beautiful, like a medieval church. Whatever your musical tastes these have to be better than "Holly Jolly Christmas" or "Most Wonderful Time of the Year." Bring on the minor key gloom!
posted by mermayd at 6:00 AM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


One hates to be churlish, especially when the OP is bringing more attention to some lovely music, but saying these carols are obscure is like saying Mozart piano quintets are "obscure" -- it presumes that it's natural and normal for people to not concern themselves with this kind of hoity toity stuff. Which is a shame! All of these carols are well known to church musicians, and many casual fans. I would suggest listening to non-new-age-crap versions, though, to get their full power. For example, ditch the wretched plinky Bleak Midwinter above, and listen to this from King's College, Cambridge. A breathtakingly beautiful piece by Gustav Holst, with lyrics by Christina Rossetti, it deserves the kind of interpretation the composer intended.
posted by ariel_caliban at 6:07 AM on December 22, 2013 [11 favorites]


Bob Dorough's Blue Xmas (with Miles Davis!) might better fit the bill, here. It's a non-hymn, upbeat, scathing condemnation of "all the waste, all the sham, all the haste, and plain old bad taste" of the Christmas season.

That said, I'm going to go listen to The Cambridge Singers' Christmas album and pretend I'm a kid again.
posted by coppermoss at 6:19 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


This post is awesome. These songs are totally creepy. That Stevie Nicks cover of Silent Night killed me. And when "Rocking Around The Christmas Tree" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" get played on the same xmas playlist as "Do You Hear What I Hear and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", nobody is obligated to view xmas carols through a religious lens.
posted by nooneyouknow at 6:34 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Noël Nouvelet
posted by IndigoJones at 6:39 AM on December 22, 2013


To practice what I am preaching, I'm pretty fond of The HP Lovecraft Historical Society's "A Brumalian Wish" setting a Christmas poem that Lovecraft wrote to Alfred Galpin to music. The rest of the two albums (A Very Scary Solstice and An Even Scarier Solstice) are parodies of popular Christmas tunes, but still in heavy rotation on my MP3 player this time of year.

For maximum overkill, the Trans Siberian Orchestra version of "Carol of the Bells" is pretty great, but not too Christmasy.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:13 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some say "creepy", I say "hauntingly beautiful". My additions:
I Wonder As I Wander
Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
posted by Daily Alice at 7:16 AM on December 22, 2013


To practice what I am preaching, I'm pretty fond of The HP Lovecraft Historical Society's "A Brumalian Wish" setting a Christmas poem that Lovecraft wrote to Alfred Galpin to music. The rest of the two albums (A Very Scary Solstice and An Even Scarier Solstice) are parodies of popular Christmas tunes, but still in heavy rotation on my MP3 player this time of year.

I'm a big fan of We Three Freinds of H.P.L. Are - educational!
posted by Artw at 7:18 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


FWIW, I thought this post was worthwhile. Opinionated framing is obviously a risk. It's one I chose to avoid completely in a similar post, even to the point of copying minor errors from the source material into the link descriptions and adding a caveat about using Christmas as a cover-term, and the result is probably too ... well, too lots of things.

you can't distinguish carols and hymns and you mock a beloved advent hymn that dates back to the medieval era as "ominous" and inadequately poppy for your taste. Holding others' religious traditions up for ridicule for being inadequately commercial is definitely what the holidays are all about

Technically, the OP doesn't call "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" a carol. She promises the post will have some carols, and it does, and she includes the hymn in a group of "Christmas songs," which is a fair way of seeing it if your social group doesn't really make a distinction between Advent and Christmas, having simply a Christmas season and Christmas Day. I may be projecting a little there, because I wasn't really raised to note the difference myself.

I don't really hear the other judgments, but rather the tone of a light journalistic review column in which all the diction is a little hyperbolic, and since the overall point of the piece seems to be to get people to listen earnestly, I don't think the works or the tradition are being called inadequate or ridiculous.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:22 AM on December 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


I want to agree with Ms Pterodactyl here. For some of us, Christmas is vital to our faiths. As well, winter is terrible, and makes us even more depressed. The hope of the birth of Christ sustains us, but that hope is always tempered by not only the season, but by the meditative nature of year's end, and knowing that his birth will end in His torture and death. Sacred music at its best, is able to work those tensions, into a meditative state. It's why religion exists, to place ourselves outside the drama of the world.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:25 AM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


I Wonder as I Wander and In the Bleak Midwinter are the best Christmas songs OF ALL TIME


imho


(carry on)
posted by Doleful Creature at 7:54 AM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


There's another upside to downer carols - sometimes shit goes down near the holidays and we want consolation. A few years ago I had a breakin at my apartment a week before Christmas, and one of the only things that they took was my computer. And on it was ten years's worth if writing I'd done, pictures I'd taken, and emails from people I'd loved that I foolishly hadn't backed up. There's stuff I've written that I will never see again.

It was a HUGE blow. And I was in no damn mood to be holly-jolly. But after a couple days of garment-rending, I suddenly heard Denis Leary's "merry fucking Christmas" song, and it was so over-the-top cynical that I laughed like a loon and felt much better.

You gotta have an outlet for the "fuck this noise" moods this season too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:57 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not wanting to join in the pile-on--hey, sometimes you swing for the rafters and end up hitting yourself in the forehead with the bat somehow, it happens--but just had to make the point that "In the Bleak Midwinter" is a perfectly lovely song.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:06 AM on December 22, 2013


Christmas carols SHOULD have a little gloom and melancholy to them. A child is born to bring hope to the world, but eventually there will be a sacrifice. This little baby is doomed, and if that doesn't merit a one or two (or ten) minor keys, I don't know what does.
posted by mochapickle at 8:29 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Down in yon forest there stands a hall...
posted by Iridic at 8:30 AM on December 22, 2013


This little babe from Britten's Ceremony of Carols is very much not on the twee, away in a manger vein - "all hell doth at his presence quake".
posted by plonkee at 8:40 AM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


My favourite Christmas songs are some of the more explicitly religious ones, because they're way less likely to be part of the mall/radio/party playlist. I get so, so tired of Winter Wonderland and White Christmas (and yes, Baby it's Cold Outside also)

I'm sure I've heard In the Bleak Midwinter set to a completely different tune, but I can't find it anywhere. Does anyone know what I'm talking about, or did I just make this up?
posted by quaking fajita at 8:49 AM on December 22, 2013


1. Yes, O Come O Come Emmanuel is an Advent Hymn. It's Advent right now. Every single day that people argue over who gets the last XBox in Target while yet another stupid cover of "Sleigh Ride" blares over the PA system IS IN ADVENT, not Christmas. I mean, unless it's not in either one at all because it's October. That's why it's always struck me as interesting that nobody ever does a pop rendition of it and you never hear it outside a church context. It's far more appropriate to the season than any actual Christmas hymn is.

2. I was not mocking the Huron Carol, for chrissakes. It's my all time favorite Christmas song. One I used to anticipate singing in the church choir every year, as a child, and which is one of the only things I miss about being an observant Christian. The Huron Carol is literally my favorite thin about Christmas and possibly my favorite thing about Christianity.

3. I like all of these songs, with the exception of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", which I included as a counterpoint to all the others.

4. I don't think there's anything particularly bad about the fact that all these songs have an intense, complicated air about them. In fact, that's why I made the post. Because mostly we just hear the same 10-15 upbeat cute songs that don't really require thought. All of these are songs that make actual thoughts happen in your mind when you hear them. Some of those thoughts are not simplemindedly happy. This is a good thing.

5. Sorry I wasn't pedantically specific about which songs are pop songs, which songs are carols, and which songs are hymns. I did not realize that this misuse of a term or two would constitute grave offense to people who are actually of the very religion I grew up in. I have never felt offended before when someone called an Advent Hymn a Christmas Carol, so I assumed most other mainline Protestants had the same accepting and relaxed attitude about things like that.
posted by Sara C. at 9:01 AM on December 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm sure I've heard In the Bleak Midwinter set to a completely different tune

There are two quite different versions of ItBM, yes. I mean, they're quite similar. Neither is a death metal anthem or anything, but they're different tunes.
posted by Grangousier at 9:05 AM on December 22, 2013


Sara C.: "O Come O Come Emmanuel yt - This song is so ominous it's hard to find a pop rendition outside of the Christian Rock scene."

Well here's Bad Religion covering it 4 days ago on Conan.
posted by Big_B at 9:10 AM on December 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


I'm sure I've heard In the Bleak Midwinter set to a completely different tune, but I can't find it anywhere. Does anyone know what I'm talking about, or did I just make this up?

You're not making it up! Tune 1; Tune 2.
posted by Catseye at 9:11 AM on December 22, 2013


Yeah. Contemplative and longing isn't creepy. I mean, look at the lyrics to O Come Emmanuel:
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
That's saying "Whoa, our life here sucks pretty bad! But when our Savior comes, everything will be great!" That's not ominous, that's joyful. Ominous is when you're saying "Yeah, things are great now, but just you wait."

You want to know what's creepy? The Hallelujah Chorus. Because the piece it follows in Handel's Messiah, the text it is responding to with its joyful Hallelujah!s, is not "For Unto Us a Child is Born" or "Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion" or "He Shall Feed his Flock Like a Shepherd," but "Thou Shalt Break Them." Text is: "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them to pieces like a potter's vessel." It's saying that all the nations who don't bow down to Christ shall be broken, ruined, destroyed. And then we all stand up and sing "Hallelujah!" Every time I perform it, it sends shivers down my spine.
posted by KathrynT at 9:12 AM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Agh, thanks! The "In The Bleak Midwinter" thing has driven me crazy for years. I was actually thinking of the other one when I went digging through youtube for a rendition to put in this post, but thought Lorena McKennit did a suitably melancholy version.
posted by Sara C. at 9:13 AM on December 22, 2013


Gretchen Peters has a lovely version of Bleak Midwinter set to a slightly different tune, quaking fajita!

In the Bleak Midwinter is my favourite carol too. I was playing 20 different versions of it a couple of weeks ago during the blizzard that hit Northern Europe, thinking that it would be a good time to donate to Shelter. Christmas is after all also a winter solstice festival, so it ought to be complex- it's literally the darkest time of the year. I wonder if excessive mall shopping is to blame for the idea that Christmas Carols ought to be manically chipper? This is a sad disconnect from the natural world, never mind the religious meaning.

I tend to associate the season with melancholy choral music, I guess because I have radio 3 on all the time. Mind you I also adore manically chipper Christmas pop songs, I go nuts on seasonal music anyways now!
posted by Erasmouse at 9:13 AM on December 22, 2013


Weird, neither of those "In The Bleak Midwinters" is the one I was originally thinking of when I put the FPP together. That said, most of my experience with Real Srs Christmas Hymns occurred between the ages of 5-7, so it's possible I'm misremembering or have created an extraneous eerie holiday tune in my head.
posted by Sara C. at 9:16 AM on December 22, 2013


I'm pretty overwhelmingly fond of this setting of Veni Emmanuel, arranged by Anne Dudley, who was a member of Art Of Noise and has done a lot of film score work and such over the years. No, it's nothing like Art Of Noise at all, but it is certainly wonderful.
posted by hippybear at 9:21 AM on December 22, 2013


I love everything by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band.
posted by moonmilk at 9:34 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Down in Yon Forest is pretty legitmately creepy, particularly in the lesser-known version that doesn't have the "bells of paradise" bit in it.
Down in yon forest be a hall Sing May Queen May sing Mary
'Tis is coverleted over with purple and pall Sing all good men for the new born baby

Oh, in that hall is a pallet-bed Sing May Queen May sing Mary
'Tis stained with blood like cardinal-red Sing all good men for the new born baby

And at that pallet is a stone Sing May Queen May sing Mary
On which the virgin did atone Sing all good men for the new born baby

Under that hall is a gushing flood Sing May Queen May sing Mary
From Christ's own side, 'tis water and blood Sing all good men for the new born baby

Beside that bed a shrub-tree grows Sing May Queen May sing Mary
Since he was born it blooms and blows Sing all good men for the new born baby

Oh, on that bed a young squire sleeps Sing May Queen May sing Mary
His wounds are sick and sick, he weeps Sing all good men for the new born baby

Oh, hail yon hall where none can sin Sing May Queen May sing Mary
'Cause it's gold outside and silver within Sing all good men for the new born baby
posted by KathrynT at 9:35 AM on December 22, 2013


Bethlehem Down is a worthy early 20th century addition to this list, I think. (So amazing to sing, too, at least the alto part :) ) The most heavily-played casette in my home growing up was Maddy Prior, so I love the haunting-yet-hopeful songs.
posted by rivenwanderer at 9:39 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really love Lo, How a Rose E're Blooming. I don't think it gets enough attention. "When half spent was the night"... I just get chills.
posted by Biblio at 9:44 AM on December 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


From last night's SNL, 12 minutes later...

Baby, It's Warm Outside
posted by Toekneesan at 9:44 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also, we can agree that "Sleigh Ride" is the all time worst Christmas song, right?
posted by Sara C. at 9:52 AM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


The worst Christmas song ever is Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas Time." On this I will brook no argument.
posted by KathrynT at 9:56 AM on December 22, 2013 [21 favorites]


One of my favorite obscure Christmas songs is Children, Go Where I Send Thee, a cumulative spiritual, and this Natalie Merchant version, with organ, seems both rousing yet dark, and funky.

There's more than one version of its lyrics, apparently, including the REO Speedwagon edition.
posted by Toekneesan at 9:58 AM on December 22, 2013


Also, we can agree that "Sleigh Ride" is the all time worst Christmas song, right?

No, that would be Santa, Baby. I've made a vow to immediately leave any store or restaurant that plays this. As a result, I have rarely made it to a checkout counter, and man, am I hungry.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is the best, but only if they do the "muddle through" version.
posted by mochapickle at 10:05 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Huh, I'd never heard of Down In Yon Forest before, and was poking around a bit online, and discovered that it's a variant on the 700-year-old Corpus Christi Carol, and found this rather interesting page about it. And also this. And also this.

Fascinating. A carol which was discovered in 1502, written probably long before that, full of symbols that nobody is sure what they mean, but many theories exist.

Very cool. I'm glad to have learned this today.
posted by hippybear at 10:06 AM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas will literally give my parents the dry heaves.

Coventry Carol, Bleak Midwinter, Lo How A Rose, and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear are winners for me, though, and O Come Emmanuel is amazing when performed monophonically.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:21 AM on December 22, 2013


From last night's SNL, 12 minutes later...

Baby, It's Warm Outside


I love the way they ended that.
posted by sweetkid at 10:26 AM on December 22, 2013


Also, we can agree that "Sleigh Ride" is the all time worst Christmas song, right?

No, the worst xmas song ever is Do They Know It's Christmas?
posted by nooneyouknow at 10:40 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


This little babe from Britten's Ceremony of Carols is very much not on the twee, away in a manger vein - "all hell doth at his presence quake".

This is hands-down one of my favorite carols. Who couldn't love

His martial ensigns Cold and Need
And Feeble flesh is warrior's steed


It doesn't feel like Christmas to me until I've listened to Britten.
posted by rtha at 10:41 AM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


No, the worst xmas song ever is Do They Know It's Christmas? yt

When I was about five I issued a backseat takedown of this song while listening to the radio in the car.

"But mom, how can they NOT KNOW ITS CHRISTMAS? Even if African people aren't Christian, don't they, like, have a calendar? Can't they look up whether it's Christmas or not?"

I was an extremely literal child.
posted by Sara C. at 10:48 AM on December 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, we can agree that "Sleigh Ride" is the all time worst Christmas song, right?

The HP Lovecraft Historical Society may have you covered.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:23 AM on December 22, 2013


The thing about "Sleigh Ride" that keeps it at the top of my most hated list is that EVERY VERSION is shit. Every popular singer of the last 50 years has put out their own take on it -- including some very talented people I enjoy a lot -- and every single iteration blows. It's possible that each new version of "Sleigh Ride" is infinitesimally worse that the previous version, all the way down from a mediocre-to-sucky original take to something that is only nominally better than the sound of someone straining to take a dump.
posted by Sara C. at 11:23 AM on December 22, 2013


The Sleigh Ride wikipedia article is one of the best things I've read today.
Lyrics, about a person who would like to ride in a sleigh on a winter's day with another person, were written by Mitchell Parish in 1950.
I think that gets exactly to the heart of why I made this post. "Sleigh Ride" is about someone who would like to go on a sleigh ride. "The Huron Carol" is about understanding the miracle of the birth of Christ outside the context of the first-century Middle East. It makes me sad that everyone knows the words to the former, whereas most people have never heard of the latter.
posted by Sara C. at 11:29 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm sad that there's been no love for Sweelinck's Hodie (Christus natus est). My Latin isn't good enough to comment on the lyrics but the music is just so joyful!
posted by orrnyereg at 11:38 AM on December 22, 2013


I've been listening to the Kings Singers version of Veni Veni Emmanuel for the last few weeks on these dreary December commutes. Something about those low hums gives me chills every time. The first version I ever heard was Enya, oddly enough, which is a lot better than you might think! It also brings chills (though maybe it's just the weather).

Weird, neither of those "In The Bleak Midwinters" is the one I was originally thinking of when I put the FPP together.

There's also an arrangement by Benjamin Britten, from A Boy Was Born (written when he was 19!). I just heard it on the radio this afternoon.

The worst Christmas song ever is Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas Time." On this I will brook no argument.

I like to imagine this is from the soundtrack of a lost John Carpenter movie, where you'd hear the synth stabs enter in the background whatever Christmas horror begins its rise.
posted by rollick at 11:45 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oops!: Benjamin Britten, A Boy Was Born, var. 5: In the Bleak Midwinter
posted by rollick at 11:47 AM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Jackson Browne's The Rebel Jesus is my favourite Christmas song. I love the version from The McGarrigle Christmas Hour (please excuse the terrible YouTube slideshows). The lyrics are more cautionary than melancholy:

And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us -
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why they are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

posted by oulipian at 11:56 AM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


It makes me sad that everyone knows the words to the former [Sleigh Ride], whereas most people have never heard of the latter [Huron Carol].

If it helps, I know Huron Carol but have never actually heard of Sleigh Ride.

And the Major Carol of the Bells is . . . not good.
posted by jeather at 11:59 AM on December 22, 2013


Yes, agreed. Just included that for novelty's sake.

Also where the hell are you from that you're like "Huron Carol, duh" and have never even heard of Sleigh Ride, which is the most recorded American musical composition of the last century? Can I move to whichever magical land this is?
posted by Sara C. at 12:04 PM on December 22, 2013


This song by my friend Kelly remains one of the saddest Christmas Songs I've heard.

Alone in my car with the heat and the parking brake on
I can hardly recall where it was that I'd said that I'd gone
I'd stolen away from the glare and the noise
Of my ravenous children destroying their toys
And I cannot suppress my sheer terror at crossing the lawn

And I wonder for the first time, is this what the old man became?
Did he find out one night he could no longer shoulder the shame?
Were the stars out one night when he left for points west?
Was his frightened heart frozen in his fragile chest?
With my little boy born, I had sworn I would not do the same

Aaaaah, falling down
Aaaaah, falling down
Aaaaaah, falling down
Like the flakes of the weather that settle cold over the ground

I came to my table, my wife and my children aglow
But I can't fill my part in this part of the holiday show
An empty cathedral, a long unpaid debt
A whole winter's worth of restraint and regret
And that was the day that their father dissolved into snow

Aaaaah
Aaaaaah
posted by mollymayhem at 12:09 PM on December 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


To my mind celebrating the birth of the Messiah demands majesty , and what could be more majestic than Ronnie James Dio and Tony Iommi?

Admittedly, Halford'll do in a pinch.
posted by Trinity-Gehenna at 12:34 PM on December 22, 2013


Also where the hell are you from that you're like "Huron Carol, duh" and have never even heard of Sleigh Ride, which is the most recorded American musical composition of the last century? Can I move to whichever magical land this is?

Quebec.

(And actually I found the lyrics to Sleigh Ride, and I do know it, I just had no idea what it was called.)
posted by jeather at 12:37 PM on December 22, 2013


Huh. Poutine, maple sugar candy, and I'd have to actually go to the trouble of seeking out "Sleigh Ride"? Count me in.
posted by Sara C. at 12:45 PM on December 22, 2013


'O Come O Come Emmanuel' has always fascinated me because it feels like a set of nesting Chinese boxes. Nested inside the English hymn is the Latin hymn, 'Veni Veni Emmanuel'. Nested inside the Latin hymn are the O Antiphons (with a secret message hidden inside them, 'Ero cras', 'I will be there tomorrow', encoded backwards so it's only visible when you look back at the antiphons on Christmas Eve). Nested inside the O Antiphons are the messianic prophecies of Isaiah. As it says in Little, Big: 'the further in you go, the bigger it gets'.

But I guess one person's 'profound and mysterious' is another person's 'spooky and ominous', so what do I know.
posted by verstegan at 1:08 PM on December 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


I don't know if it qualifies as creepy, but I always thought that Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree had some strange lyrics. I find the tune lovely and haunting though.
posted by Archer25 at 2:23 PM on December 22, 2013


> Baby, It's Warm Outside

I love the way they ended that.


Yeah, that was surprisingly well done. For the love of god, don't make me start watching SNL again!
posted by languagehat at 2:26 PM on December 22, 2013


And actually I found the lyrics to Sleigh Ride, and I do know it, I just had no idea what it was called.

That's what I figured since the song is pretty ubiquitous in the US and Quebec is not far. I don't know that I would know that song is called Sleigh Ride except for the fact that they say it a lot and I wouldn't know what else it would be called.
posted by sweetkid at 2:44 PM on December 22, 2013


Also, the bookstore played an instrumental version of "Summertime" instead of Christmas carols today, probably in honor of the fact that it was 66 degrees in Brooklyn in December.
posted by sweetkid at 2:45 PM on December 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Somebody already said they hate this but it's the biggest hit of all time Christmas songs. Bing Crosy White Christmas.
posted by bukvich at 8:50 PM on December 22, 2013


It doesn't have a tradition, but Valley Winter Song by Fountains of Wayne is one of my favorite winter songs.
posted by sweetkid at 8:58 PM on December 22, 2013


My sad Xmas fave: Family Life by The Blue Nile.
posted by Superfrankenstein at 10:49 PM on December 22, 2013


My favorite semi-neglected Christmas Carol is The Holly and the Ivy. Also available in this vaguely spooky and definitely awesome version (featured previously).

And for anyone for whom Christmas with family doesn't always conjure up happy memories, Sufjan Stevens is there for you with the melancholy That Was the Worst Christmas Ever.
posted by naoko at 9:16 PM on December 23, 2013


No, the worst xmas song ever is Do They Know It's Christmas?

Only because you're American and so don't have any of the cultural and political context in which Band Aid formed.

For me: it's a good Christmas song; a great charity song; and a perfect time capsule of 1984 Britain which transports me back to that December every time I hear it.

Although in a way for me that's its undoing as a Christmas classic; it's hard to untangle the associations from the song itself, and that makes it an uncomfortable fit alongside other Christmas staples. It carries too much baggage to be relegated to mall wallpaper music.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 3:51 PM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


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