Creepy Christmas carols
December 9, 2008 11:25 PM   Subscribe

An antidote to the holly jolly malaise: Few Christmas carols contain as much blood and suffering as "Down in yon forest." It was first documented in England by Ralph Vaughan Williams, but John Jacob Niles found an even gorier version in North Carolina (Alfred Deller's rendition).

Niles was also responsible for another creepy Christmas song: "I wonder as I wander" (audio). In fact, the mountain interior of the United States is a rich ground for such tunes, like "Lady Gay" (variant), "Fair Charlotte," and "Timbo fight." The English continue celebrating Christmas with the ritualized presentation and ingestion of a severed pig head (video). Beware of overindulgence, or be prepared to answer J.M. Gates' musical question, "Did you spend Christmas Day in jail?" (see also: "Death might be your Santa Claus"). Still having a blue Christmas? It will soon be over.
posted by imposster (29 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Creepy Christmas carols!
posted by FatherDagon at 12:19 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

That North Carolina version is utterly splendid. I love the old style Xmas carols that meld together old style paganism and the story of the crucifixion in their rendition of the nativity to make the old tale incredibly mysterious and significant. We’re so used to carols like The Holly and The Ivy that we forget quite how odd the lyrics are.

As for scary, tho, you can’t beat the verse of We Three Kings (itself kind of a dirge) which used to chill me to the bone when I was little:

Myrhh is mine, its bitter perfume
Weaves a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 12:34 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not very gory at all, actually, I was rather disappointed. I was expecting organs avulsed and brains burst.

A bit of blood and some pagan European kingship imagery. Boo.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 12:40 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

A Cheery bit of doom and gloom mediaevalism is the Chant of the still sung at the midnight mass ("el gallo") in the Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca, and throughout the Island and parts of Catalunia.
From the translation
On Judgement Day
all shall perish who have not served Him well.

A huge fire shall descend from the sky:
Sea, lakes and rivers, all shall burn
The fish shall scream aloud,
Losing their natural habitat.
The sun shall shed its brightness,
Becoming dark and shadowy
The moon shall give no light and
there shall be despair in the whole world

This sung is often by a young woman in a white gown with a drawn sword.
posted by adamvasco at 1:45 AM on December 10, 2008

I love the traditional Coventry Carol, which is sung after Christmas, but still. It's got a lovely, haunting tune, but it's about Herod's slaughter of the yeah, pretty creepy and depressing.
posted by fantine at 2:50 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not very Christmas themed, but if we're digressing onto sad and gory folk ballads in general, the collection in the appendix of Cannibalism and the Common Law is awesome (great history book). Some of the appendix is scanned into google books.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:15 AM on December 10, 2008

And there's Adam lay ybounden, which makes Adam into some kind of Prometheus figure.
posted by raygirvan at 5:34 AM on December 10, 2008

Creepiest? For me, hands down, it's that terrifying "Carol of the Bells," with its ground bass and its minor key and its sheer relentlessness. It always sounds like it's about to segue into Dies Irae. As for which version is the most frightening, it's really hard to tell...
posted by mothershock at 5:51 AM on December 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

The fish shall scream aloud,

Sadly, this has been under-utilized as a Christmas motif. Where are the screaming fish napkins? The shrieking mackerel glass balls? The screeching trout welcome mats? The bellowing sturgeon wrapping paper? The caterwauling smelt brooches? The squealing salmon tree toppers? Martha Stewart should get on this, pronto.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:10 AM on December 10, 2008 [5 favorites]

"Down in yon forest" is based in turn on the older Corpus Christi Carol, which was discovered in a manuscript dated around 1500 (but I surmise it was composed far earlier than that, possibly as early as the mid 14th century). Its imagery is indeed startling, creepy and compelling. As a medieval scholar, I find it fascinating, because it places a scene designed to create affective piety (the visualization of and emotional response to the suffering of Jesus and Mary, a common devotional practice by this time) into a setting that seems lifted straight out of Arthurian literature. In particular, it reminds me of Wolfram von Eschenbach's 12th century epic Parzival (the middle high German story of the Grail), where a mysterious lady named Sigune appears over and over again, bearing the dead body of her slain lover in her arms. Not exactly scary--but definitely eerie.
posted by duvatney at 7:15 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oops. Meant to say that Parzival was written ca. 1210, not the 12th century.
posted by duvatney at 7:19 AM on December 10, 2008

I love the creepy carols because they hearken back to the days before Christianity hired a PR firm, back when believers had the guts to celebrate the holiday by saying, "Hey, look at that little baby-savior in a manger there. Isn't he adorable and cockle-warming? In 33 years, we're going to torture and kill him for our own personal spiritual gain! Hooray!"

Religions in general are fucked up, but this one's hard to top.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:21 AM on December 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've always been fond of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen for the sly way it slips "Satan's power" into the yuletide season. Surprisingly few people can name the Christmas carol that mentions Satan, despite all of them knowing all the words to that one. It's such a chipper song, otherwise.
posted by rusty at 7:24 AM on December 10, 2008

Agreed, rusty. I've heard some versions that substitute "sin and strife" for "Satan's power," but, even as a child, I enjoyed singing the Satan version better.
posted by duvatney at 7:26 AM on December 10, 2008

Bethlehem Down by Peter Warlock has to be my favourite Creepsmas song. Clicking on the "Soprano" link on that page will get you the tune, or you can listen to the choir of King's College, Cambridge.
A little on its history here:

By 1927 Warlock was in financial difficulty, due in part to a fall in the demand for his songs. He struck up a friendship with Bruce Blunt, a journalist, poet and “bon viveur”. The first record of their association was a press report about them being arrested “drunk and disorderly” in Chelsea. Running short of money, the two friends wrote Bethlehem Down to submit to the Daily Telegraph's annual carol contest. They duly won the prize, which was used to finance an “immortal carouse” on Christmas Eve 1927.

I am proud of having creeped out a packed Washington National Cathedral a few Christmases ago with this one.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:43 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

Although the carol isn't creepy overall, I find the naff faux-jolly "Ha! Ha! Ha!" inserted into Jingle Bells pretty creepy.

Sadly, this has been under-utilized as a Christmas motif
I imagine Big Mouth Billy Bass and similar could be hacked to scream aloud rather than sing.
posted by raygirvan at 8:17 AM on December 10, 2008

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is a favorite of mine as well. The classic carols that foreshadow the death of Jesus and that place his birth in the context of God's actions to redeem and renew the earth ("to save the world from Satan's power when we had gone astray") are some of the most meaningful songs theologically that Christians ever sing. I'd like to see some research on this, but I doubt that the Christmas celebrations that take the looming crucifixion out of the picture came from within the church. His birth has always been linked to his death. In Matthew's gospel, Herod is already trying to kill Jesus when he is a toddler, and slaughters all the baby boys in Bethlehem hoping to get him. In Luke, eight-day-old Jesus is at the Temple when Simeon tells Mary and Joseph that "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

Christmas has always been a story about rumors and scandal, the threat of divorce, an innkeeper with no hospitality for a pregnant woman, a King provoked to murder by the threat of a baby, a family on the run from danger, a child who is destined to willingly die. Atheist can join in the secular Christmas stuff with office parties and gift exchanges and eggnog around the fireplace, but the heart of the Christian celebration is a reminder that light has come into a dark world (that's John's telling of it). To ignore the darkness is to miss the point.

imposster, Thanks for this post. I hadn't known this song before.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 8:21 AM on December 10, 2008 [4 favorites]

it's that terrifying "Carol of the Bells," with its ground bass and its minor key and its sheer relentlessness

Oh god, it is not a happy song. That Ding-Dong chorus seems like really good background music for a bludgeoning-to-death.

my favorite version
posted by The Whelk at 8:22 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

I used to live in Murphy, NC (specifically Hanging Dog) and suspect I will return there someday. "I wonder as I wander" has always been one of my favorite hymns, and it is awesome to learn the etymology of the Cherokee County version of Down in yon Forest.

Oh I pine, pine for home. These building lined avenues of NYC do not compare to the rolling mountains of Appalachia.

Thanks imposster (and duvatney for your medieval scholarship)!
posted by whimsicalnymph at 8:51 AM on December 10, 2008

Christmas is a winter solstice holiday at its root with some Christ-is-born tinsel strewn about it. Some of the paga rituals it supplanted, even in the christian tradition, are pretty intense.

One of my favorite books on yuletide traditions is Phyllis Siefker's "Santa Claus: Last of the Wildmen", where the author not only goes into some of the bloodier aspects ("Who Killed Cock Robin" is a Christmas thing in some rural parts of England and the US) but also the earliest origins of Santa himself.

Turns out he was a solstice bear-god, worshipped by European Neanderthalls, and when Homo Sapiens evolved and moved into the area, they took on the tradition as their own.

So, when your kid is sitting on Old Kris Kringle's lap, you are paying worship to a god older than humanity itself.

There's your creepy.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:04 AM on December 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

Not very gory at all, actually, I was rather disappointed. I was expecting organs avulsed and brains burst.

Oh, fine.

Help! The herald angels mourn
"Save us from the zombie horde!
Hell on earth, abandoned law
Brains of sinners eaten raw.
Bloody pus and organs burst!
Who among us shall be first?
With our flesh the maggots claim
"Man will never live again."
Help! The herald angels sing
"Before you die, you see the ring!"
posted by katillathehun at 10:02 AM on December 10, 2008 [7 favorites]

Oh I love Christmas. It's such a mutant monster of a holiday that consumed every tradition it touched so now we have flying deer and a magic baby and carols and elves and burning trees and saints and presents and cookies and magi and stockings full of candy and mistletoe and anything else we can think of just gets shoved into it's bottomless maw.
posted by The Whelk at 10:05 AM on December 10, 2008 [6 favorites]

My favorite carol is "Here Comes Santa Claus:"

Here comes Santa Claus
Here comes Santa Claus
Right down Santa Claus Way
To save us all from Satans' power
When we have gone astray
Oh I hope you have been a good boy
Been a good boy
I hope you have been a good boy.
posted by Floydd at 10:35 AM on December 10, 2008

He knows when you are sleeping.

He knows when you're awake.

He knows if you've been bad or good...

So be good, for goodness sake.
posted by rusty at 12:00 PM on December 10, 2008

the Chant of the

Strange coincidence: it has a strong resemblance to parts of the equally apocalyptic The Song of the Sibyll in the Elder Edda:
Now death is the portion of doomed men,
Red with blood the buildings of gods,
The sun turns black in the summer after,
Winds whine. Well, would know more?

Earth sinks in the sea, the sun turns black,
Cast down from Heaven are the hot stars,
Fumes reek, into flames burst,
The sky itself is scorched with fire.
posted by raygirvan at 2:48 PM on December 10, 2008

Don't forget Sean Wesche's Evil Christmas Carol medleys one and two.
posted by deusdiabolus at 11:13 PM on December 10, 2008

raygirvan - The Canto de la Sibilla is definitely ancient; some say it refers back to John's apocalypse.
Whether this refers back to the Cumaean Sybil or another I cannot say. It is interesting that this has juxtaposed to the Eddas though hardly surprising as the prophecies of end of world doom seem to occur throughout all early western mythology. Wiki says the Codex Regis was C13th - a similar timeframe to the early mediaeval was common in the Mediterranean. Christianity was gaining a stronghold and assimulating as much as possible. This seems to indicate an earlier folk memory.
posted by adamvasco at 4:01 AM on December 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

This is my favorite creepy christmas carol: the Carol of the Old Ones.
posted by seanbickford at 7:41 AM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

« Older You would always be viewed by many Americans as a...   |   Anchors Aweigh Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments