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Christmas... the musical

Channel 4 website
December 2004

The summit of the UK singles charts is where every self-respecting singer or group wants to be at Christmas, and this year ‘Do They Know it's Christmas’ becomes the first and only song ever to make it to the Christmas No.1 spot three times. Band Aid's song has long been part of that exclusive (but strange) collection of Christmas faves, which include Slade's stomping ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’, Cliff's dewy-eyed ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ and... er... ‘Wombling Merry Christmas’ by the Wombles.

If that sounds like a very mixed bag, then there's some comfort in knowing that Christmas songs have always been like that. Of all the Christian festivals of the year, Christmas is the most wayward, and the season has been a battleground between faith and fun for at least 1,000 years – especially in the musical department.

For the first millennium of the Christian faith, the church was in charge. The music of Christmas was solemnly chanted, and the words were serious and theological. This famous Christmas hymn from the 6th century (sung in Eastern churches today) gives the flavour...

Today the Virgin gives birth
to him who is above all being,
and the earth offers a cave
to him whom no one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
and magi journey with a star,
for to us there has been born
a little Child, God before the ages.

Things began to loosen up in the 13th century, and the bright spark of change was St Francis of Assisi. In the winter of 1223, seeking to recreate the nativity scene of Bethlehem, he turned a cave near the village of Greccio into a stable, complete with straw, an ox and ass, and the baby Jesus lying in a crib. The local people were stunned by the Mass Francis led there. Although people had been singing and dancing around cribs in Italian churches for years, Francis was the one who popularised it, and his monks travelled through France, Germany and England, spreading a new kind of music: folk songs you could dance to, telling the Christmas story.

‘In Dulci Jubilo’ is one of the oldest of these carols still sung today, and if it's played fast enough, it's a blatant invitation to throw off your jacket and take to the dance floor.

The trouble was, the priests and bishops didn't like having their services interrupted by dancing and jollity, even if it was Christmas. They also didn't like choir singers who pulled faces during the singing of the sacred offices, or who added sound effects such as thunder and lightning or horses neighing. And finally, they were most displeased with those carols which were loud and bawdy, and which sang the praises of beer, beef, cider and merrymaking...

Bring us out a table,
And spread it with a cloth!
Bring us out a mouldy cheese,
And some of your Christmas loaf!

Christmas was clearly getting a bit too merry. One pope put his foot down and denounced this new, popular music which ‘intoxicates the ear’, and two church councils banned carols altogether. But it was no good. The condemnations and bannings simply drove carols out of the churches and into the pubs and streets, where they flourished. This is how the whole business of people going from door to door singing carols got started, in fact. The carol quoted above is one of these English ‘wassailing’ carols.

Alongside the merry carols were others which had their origins in paganism, but were given a Christian spin. ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, for instance, which first appeared in print in 1710, has pagan roots; the holly being masculine and the ivy feminine. The men probably sang the first two ‘holly’ lines of each verse, while the women responded with the lines about Mary...

The holly bears a prickle
As sharp as any thorn,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
On Christmas day in the morn.

Carols eventually calmed down and became better behaved, but they have never lost their popular appeal, and some of them are more doggerel than poetry. The ones which lack reverence make up for it with a sort of boisterous joy. And there are carols which have intriguing stories behind them.

The Da Vinci Code among carols is ‘The 12 days of Christmas’, which was first sung when it was illegal to be a Roman Catholic in Britain. Each verse of the carol is said to be a coded reference to Catholic belief, sung to help children remember the basics of their faith. And so the ‘partridge in a pear tree’ is Jesus Christ on the cross; the ‘two turtle doves’ are the Old and New Testaments; the ‘four calling birds’ are the four Gospels, and so on.

One carol that might never have made it to become one of the most popular carols of all is ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. Charles Wesley, who wrote it (along with 6,000 other hymns), was famous for demanding that no one should mess with the words of his songs. ‘I desire they would not attempt to mend them,’ he said, ‘so I may not be accountable for the nonsense or doggerel of other men.’ However, the opening line for ‘Hark the Herald’, as penned by Charles, clearly needed more work...

Hark, how all the welkin rings,
Glory to the King of Kings.

Fortunately, George Whitefield, a famous 18th century evangelist and a friend of Charles, firmly crossed out that opening line and added the herald angels instead.

The best-loved carol of all has the best-loved story. ‘Silent Night’ was recently voted favourite carol in a Classic FM poll, drawing 18 per cent of the vote. The song was written on Christmas Eve 1818, when Pastor Joseph Mohr needed a carol for the next day's service at his church in Oberndorf, Austria. He had already written the words, and so went to see his friend, Franz Gruber, the church organist, who wrote the carol's beautiful tune in a few hours. The next day, Gruber introduced ‘Stille Nacht’ to the congregation, which he played for them on a guitar. The carol became an instant hit.

The story has attracted many mthys, including one which has it that Gruber played the guitar because mice had eaten through the bellows of the church organ. But part of the magic of the story of Silent Night is that it gives us a tantalising glimpse into how a famous carol was written. Most of our best-known carols dance down to us out of the past, given as Christmas presents by people unknown.

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