Is early December a reasonable time to start singing Christmas carols? We seem to agree it’s about right. You can hardly leave it much later, if you want to get your school carols night in before the end of term.
We also seem to agree that candles are an essential part of the carolling experience, despite the fact that candles, at this time of year, don’t take full effect until it’s about time for young kids to go to bed. Hence, every televised Aussie carols event will feature a mandatory crowd shot of toddlers crashing out to Away in a Manger while their parents carol on, wielding child-safe candles with something that looks like a surgical dog collar around the flame.
As for the carols themselves, we seem to have a fairly shaky sense of what a “carol” is. The word once denoted any song of celebration sung in public by a group of people. Carols didn’t have to be about Christmas; they could be sung on any festive occasion.
We seem to have a fairly shaky sense of what a “carol” is.Credit:istock
These days we seem to have flipped that definition. A carol is just any song that gets sung at Christmas, whether it’s performed by massed voices or by Michael Buble.
It doesn’t even have to be a song about Christmas. Take Jingle Bells. No carols night would be complete without it. But Jingle Bells is not about Christmas. Look at the lyrics. There’s nothing in them about Santa or reindeer. It’s a song about how much fun it is to get pulled through some snow on a sleigh by a lone horse. Originally entitled One Horse Open Sleigh, it was written as a Thanksgiving song. Then Americans started singing it at Christmas, and that tradition caught on, to put it mildly.
Until very recently – until I started researching this article, in fact – I’d have been ready to swear that Santa gets at least one mention in Jingle Bells. But that’s the power of tradition. These songs get into our heads when we’re way too young to ponder the lyrics. Because we’ve always sung Jingle Bells at Christmastime, we assume the sleigh we’re singing about is Santa’s. We even start imagining that Santa’s sleigh has bells on it, which would be an odd choice for a man whose whole brand is based on not waking people up.
By the time it even gets dark enough for candles, the children are in bed.Credit:James Alcock
Most Christmas songs divide into two basic categories: your Santa songs and your Baby Jesus songs. But Jingle Bells isn’t the only Christmas favourite that’s about neither. Good King Wenceslas is about a medieval Bohemian do-gooder practising Christian ethics on the Feast of Stephen – i.e. Boxing Day.
In real life, Wenceslas wasn’t a king. He was only a duke. Although he’s generally depicted as a grey-bearded oldster, the real Wenceslas died unexpectedly in his twenties when his brother murdered him with a lance. His brother was known as Boleslaus the Cruel. Whether he was already known as that before he wasted his brother with a lance is unclear.
I suspect we’d have stopped singing Good King Wenceslas years ago if it weren’t for one thing: there’s snow in it. It’s lying all about and it’s deep and crisp and even. Yes, we all know that it doesn’t snow in the southern hemisphere at Christmastime. But Christmas wouldn’t feel like Christmas if we weren’t singing songs about sub-zero weather events. All by itself, snow can be enough to get a song over the line as a Christmas carol.
Consider Frosty the Snowman. Again, no carols night would be complete without it. And again there’s no mention of Christmas in the lyric. It’s just a song about a snowperson who magically comes to life and then – paradoxically – proceeds to melt when the sun comes out.
I suspect we’d have stopped singing Good King Wenceslas years ago if it weren’t for one thing: there’s snow in it.
Frosty was written in 1950 for the American crooner Gene Autry, who’d had a seasonal hit the previous year with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Like Frosty, Rudolph wasn’t technically a carol. But at least it was about Christmas, in the Santa sense if not the Jesus one. Contrary to the popular misconception, Rudolph does not appear in the Bible. He originated as a character in a colouring-in book. Then he appeared in a spin-off cartoon. Autry’s song was a spin-off from the spin-off.
But even “real” carols turn out to have a chequered past when you look at them closely. If you Google Hark the Herald Angels Sing, the top result informs you that it’s a “Song by Boney M.” That doesn’t sound right. But if it isn’t by Boney M., who is it by?
This isn’t an easy question to answer because the first version of the song had a different title, somewhat different words, and a totally different melody. The original lyrics were written in 1739 by the English hymnist Charles Wesley, who fitted them to the tune of an existing Easter carol.
Wesley’s opening line was “Hark how all the welkin rings”. “Welkin” was another word for heaven. Even at the time that must have sounded weird because just 15 years after Wesley wrote his lyric, another English hymnist revised it, losing the “welkin” and bringing in the herald angels.
As for the rousing melody we know today, Felix Mendelssohn wrote it in 1840, but he didn’t write it to go with those words. He wrote it for a cantata celebrating the 400th anniversary of the invention of movable type. Only when an English composer tweaked Mendelssohn’s tune to fit the lyrics of Hark the Herald Angels did the song as we know it finally come together.
A lot of Christmas songs needed drastic script-doctoring before becoming classics. We Wish You a Merry Christmas originally went “I wish you a merry Christmas”. An early Cornish version of The First Noel used the phrase “oh well” instead of the word “Noel” – as in “oh well, oh well, the angels did say” and “oh well, oh well, oh well, oh well, born is the King of Israel”.
As with the best carols, Christmas itself has mutated and evolved over the centuries. It’s a cobbled-together festival, a hodgepodge of religious and secular elements, and Australians have as much right as anyone to add their own local preferences to the mix.
To us, nothing feels more Christmassy than singing songs about snow on a 30-degree evening while kids run around blowing out each other’s candles, which hardly matters because it’s still broad daylight. Would you have it any other way? I wouldn’t.
To read more from Spectrum, visit our page here.
The Booklist is a weekly newsletter for book lovers from books editor Jason Steger. Get it delivered every Friday.
Most Viewed in Culture
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article