I often resist trends. I never read gossip magazines. I don’t really follow clothing trends. I pointedly avoided getting on the Serial podcast bandwagon until all the episodes were complete. But Hamilton? Hamilton is a trend I can get behind. Like most popular things I had been warily watching the hubbub about Hamilton from a comfortable distance. I’d even tried to get tickets once before it got to Broadway and gave up when all the shows in the next ten days were sold out.
But then near the end of September 2015 NPR hosted the entire soundtrack for free streaming. The day it came out, my brother-in-law, whose opinion in such matters has never steered me wrong, privately messaged me to say that I had to check it out. I had just happened to find myself stuck for at least an hour and a half at the budget airport in Frankfurt with nothing much to do and free wifi. So I figured I would give it chance at least for a few songs. Needless to say, I was happily blown away. After listening to less than 25% of the album, I knew I would finish the whole thing and listen several more times.
If you’re not into Hamilton, I first recommend that you listen to the entire thing in order before writing it off and second tell you that, although it helps, it’s really not necessary to know the show to enjoy today’s post. “Hamildolph” is a fun mashup of a few Hamilton songs with white guys (Eclipse 6) telling the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (The white guys really is a notable difference from the show where the only role played by a Caucasian was King George III.) Rudolph’s nose vies with the star marking the Christchild’s birth for the most famous light of Christmas. So enjoy, and take away this lesson from Hamilton that every once in a while something gets popular for good reason.
Today’s song is a little different musically from what I normally post (largely in that it is more sentimental), but it holds a personal and sentimental place for me. In my family we’ve grown up making music all our lives. We would gather around the piano and sing, and as we got older, we added voice parts and different instruments. I don’t know where she got it, but years ago my mom got several copies of the choral arrangement of today’s song, and it always made its appearance in our Christmas music rotation singalongs. In addition to this song’s place in our impromptu living room performances, many times my brother and I sang it for church services. We worked out when we would take solos and who would sing which parts.
The song has a lovely melody and, for a Christmas song, a somewhat unusual approach in its message. It’s a spiritual retrospective; it’s not just nostalgia but a recognition that time changes our perspective and is not always kind. Is a symbol, in this case, a star still significant or relevant as it was years earlier? The composer, Dan Carter, talks about this in relation to this song. Originally he had written the tune for a stage musical, but it was never used in the show. Somehow he got the idea of remaking it into a Christmas song and mentioned it to a college friend, Sherri Otteson Bird. She wanted to try writing lyrics for the song, took it, but then Carter didn’t hear from her for several months. Suddenly she and her husband called one night with the news that she had finished writing the lyrics. They dropped what they were doing around 10PM, got together, tried it out around the piano, and felt like it was the right fit.
I like the idea that symbols and songs can shift in their purpose and can still feed us.
“… put up the brightest string of lights I’ve ever seen!”
I thought the above photo by Bill Gracey captured the thrill of Christmas lights and the urgency of today’s song from the 1966 hit musical, Mame. Starring Angela Lansbury on Broadway, Mame is, at least partially, a gender inversion of the musical Annie: wealthy New Yorker Mame Dennis lives a carefree lifestyle with her eccentric rich friends and colleagues, and then her newly orphaned nephew comes to live with her, right around the time of the Great Depression. But, whereas Annie seems to soften Daddy Warbucks, Auntie Mame is not so reformed; rather, she scoops her nephew Patrick into her freewheeling lifestyle.
I’ve always found this song infectious but learning that in the musical it comes just after the October 1929 stock market crash makes me like it more. Mame is decorating, filling stockings, eating fruitcake (my grandpa actually makes a really good one, so this counts as celebrating in my book), and insisting on holiday cheer and spirit in spite of just losing her fortune. A note about the timing–in this version they sing that it’s only a week past Thanksgiving. Here’s your cultural artifact to show that the Christmas creep starting earlier and earlier is actually a thing. By the time Lucille Ball starred in the 1974 film version, the lyrics were changed to say, “But Auntie Mame, it’s one week from Thanksgiving Day now!” We may be rushing things, indeed.
I found myself wondering if hanging Christmas lights in 1929 was a thing, and turns out that decorating with Christmas lights has enough of a history that I’ll break it up across a few days of this countdown. For today, yes, it seems possible that they were used in 1929, although it’s hard to tell how commonly they were used anywhere other than on a tree, and initially they seemed to be a feature of wealthy households in particular. Christmas lights go by several different names including fairy lights (in the UK), twinkle lights, holiday lights, mini lights, and Italian lights (but this name is mostly just in Chicago–random, I know).
I agree with Mame about the lights: I’ve felt much more spirited ever since we put a string up about a week ago.
Following this year’s theme of light, a song with the injunction to bring a torch was a natural fit. Some version of “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella” likely has been around since the 1300s, not as a Christmas song but as a dance. You can picture the twirling and skipping and footwork in this tune. Then it seems it was first published in France in a collection of Christmas songs in the early 1500s. In the Provence region kids may still dress up and carry lights to Christmas Midnight mass while singing this song. Some have speculated that this song served as a way of physically performing the assemblage of a creche scene. As everyone meets with their torches and candles, they gather around the Christchild, and, in the song, they must be quiet and careful not to wake him.
To be honest, I had a hard time knowing what song to choose for today. Last night as I prepared for bed, I saw more breaking headlines about the crisis in Aleppo, and I remembered four years ago today when we heard the terrifying news about the shooting at Sandy Hook. Then in 2012 it seemed that posting festive Christmas music was perhaps a bit tone deaf during the next few days, and I thought of those same feelings again today. Although the Robert Shaw recording may not evoke this interpretation, I found myself reflecting on the words of the second verse:
It is wrong when the Child is sleeping It is wrong to speak so loud; Silence, now as you come to the cradle, Lest you awaken little Jesus…
And that seemed to get at some of the feelings I was thinking through. Then, as I rummaged for pictures to use, looking for something with torch, I saw one of the Statue of Liberty and thought about how it had been gifted to the United States from France in 1886. Lady Liberty also lights a torch and looks to bless the weak and the poor.
Hello! It’s that time again. Every year this 12 Days of Christmas Music countdown starts December 13 because that’s how the math works to finish the countdown the day before Christmas. But that means that every year this countdown also begins on St. Lucy’s Day or St. Lucia’s Day. Celebrated primarily in some Catholic and Lutheran traditions, St. Lucy’s Day honors the saint Lucy who was a martyr in Syracuse at the turn of the fourth century.
St. Lucy is known for various things including prizing her virginity which she had consecrated to God. Without knowing about this arrangement, Lucy’s mom tried to arrange for her future and set up an engagement. But Lucy wasn’t having it and started giving the family fortune away to the poor. When the betrothed heard about this, he got angry and tried to talk her out of it, by which we mean that he got the governor to order Lucy to go to a brothel. She stubbornly refused, even when they purportedly hooked her up to a team of oxen to drag her there. They had to try various means before Lucy died, but eventually she did and became a celebrated martyr.
Since her death, here are a few other stories about Lucy: They say that she wandered into dark catacombs to bring food to Christians hiding there, and she wore a wreath of candles on her head to keep her hands free for schlepping the food. They say that she had her eyes gouged out, hence the mildly creepy image of Lucy holding a pair of eyes on a platter. (She’s also the patron saint of sight and of the blind). Get this: she was buried but then had to be moved in 1861. Why? Zoning issues; they decided to put in a railway station. But then thieves stole all her bones except for her head in November 1981! And then they found her bones again on her very feast day. So far parts of St. Lucy’s corpse have made their way to at least five cities in Italy as well as Sweden, France, and Germany. Someone should really make St. Lucy into a movie. For centuries St. Lucy’s Day was on winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. This, as well as her name sharing the root of the Latin word for light, lux, has led to St. Lucy’s Day being a celebration of lights.
And that, dear readers, is the theme of this year’s countdown–light.
Let me give you just a few more details about the song for today. The story of the song can basically be summed up like this: a Swede, a Neapolitan, and Elvis walk into a bar… Above in the embedded video you can see a typical Swedish St. Lucia celebration and rendition of the song. But listen to that rolling 6/8 meter! Through the 20+ hours of daily darkness from the Swedes you get a Venetian gondolier. That’s because the song is actually a canzone napoletana like “O sole mio.” It comes from the tradition of songs that Neapolitan boatmen would sing from their boats. So you can bet that the lyrics in the original version weren’t about night walking with heavy step and shadows brooding in our house and darkness taking flight soon, like they are in the Swedish song. Nope. The song’s original lyrics were in praise of a picture-perfect waterfront area of Borgo Santa Lucia in the Bay of Naples, an area that has changed considerably in the 150+ years since the song became more widely known. (You can see images of what it used to look like in the video below.)
First translated from Neapolitan to Italian and published in 1849, the Italian lyrics go something like this,
On the sea glitters the silver star Gentle the waves, favorable the winds. Come into my nimble little boat, Saint Lucy! Saint Lucy! … O sweet Naples, O blessed soil, Where to smile desired its creation, You are the kingdom of harmony, Saint Lucy! Saint Lucy!
So, now you know why the story of the song sounds like the beginning of a joke–Swedes, Neapolitans, and what about Elvis? He recorded it in 1964 for the film Viva Las Vegas. But the song is also popular with Austrian fraternities and is the anthem of Silpakom University in Thailand, whose founder was Italian. It’s versatile like that.
Happy first day of the Christmas music countdown, and Happy St. Lucy’s Day!
Until doing the research for this post, I didn’t know how Charles Wesley, Felix Mendelssohn, and Johann Gutenberg were related. It sounds like a bad joke: So a preacher, a composer, and a printer walk into a bar…
The carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” brings these and several others together, just as George Bailey’s friends from Bedford Falls all gather together to sing it at the end of the holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
The carol first appeared in John and Charles Wesley’s 1739 collection, Hymns and Sacred Poems under the title, “Hymn for Christmas-Day” and was written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), John Wesley’s younger brother. John was the founder of the Methodist movement, and Charles was a leader and clergyman within the movement (although Charles did not wish to break with the Anglican church as John did). Over the course of his life, Charles wrote 6,000 hymns. Can we just take a minute to appreciate that? You’d have to write a hymn everyday for over sixteen years to pull that off. Some examples of eighteenth-century devotion make even the most regular practitioners of Christianity today look like weak sauce. Others of Charles Wesley’s hymns include “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending”; “Rejoice, the Lord Is King!”; “Jesus, Lover of my Soul”; “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”; and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
In Charles Wesley’s 1739 version, besides the title being different, the first line–now the same as the title–wasn’t “Hark! The herald angels sing.” It was “Hark! how all the welkin rings.” I like the change just fine, but I love thinking about the original line too. “Welkin” is an Old English word (also found in Dutch and German) and can mean firmament, sky, cloud, and heavens. When we think of singing, we generally look for some living thing to be doing the singing, but centuries ago the skies and firmaments themselves were thought to produce and move according to heavenly music. Music–a special music inaudible to human ears–was the power that kept the elements of the cosmos in their spheres and contributed to harmonizing and ordering all of creation. In his 1687 hymn to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, John Dryden begins
From harmony, from Heav’nly harmony
This universal frame began.
When Nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,
As from the pow’r of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator’s praise
To all the bless’d above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And music shall untune the sky.
This is the same tradition that C. S. Lewis refers to when, in his first book of the Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan sings Narnia into being. The belief that cosmic music ordered the universe had been replaced by the astronomical observations of Copernicus, Kepler, and others through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and particularly Newton’s laws of motion in the mid to late seventeenth century. Still, the idea of the universe humming and vibrating–ringing, to use Charles Wesley’s word–with powerful, heavenly music is an alluring one that hadn’t disappeared from cultural consciousness by the time Wesley wrote his hymn. I like to think that this is what he wished to evoke with “Hark! how all the welkin rings.” Plus, when I hear that line, rightly or wrongly, I think of it in a thick Scottish accent, and it makes me smile. But by 1753 or 1754, less than twenty years later, George Whitefield changed the line to “Hark! the herald angels sing” as we know it today in his Hymns for Social Worship.
The words were as we know them now, but not the music. Originally Wesley intended “Hark! how all the welkin rings,” which he called “Hymn for Christmas-Day” to be sung to the same tune as what is now known as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and which was originally called, you guessed it, “Hymn for Easter Day.” Both were published in the Wesley brothers’ 1739 collection, Hymns and Sacred Poems. You can listen to “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” in the video below.
Learning that “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was originally intended as a pairing with “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” as “Hymn for Christmas-Day” and “Hymn for Easter Day” was a terrific lil’ discovery for me, and, for me, makes the character of both hymns make more sense. Of the five verses of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” only three are commonly sung now, and I found the final two somewhat anticlimactic compared to the third, the one we usually end with today. That is, until I thought of them to the tune of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” Try out these verses to the tune of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”:
Come, Desire of Nations, come, Fix in Us thy humble Home, Rise, the Woman’s Conqu’ring Seed, Bruise in Us the Serpent’s Head. Now display thy saving Pow’r, Ruin’d Nature now restore, Now in Mystic Union join Thine to Ours, and Ours to Thine.
Adam’s Likeness, LORD, efface, Stamp thy Image in its Place, Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in thy Love. Let us Thee, tho’ lost, regain, Thee, the Life, the Inner Man: O! to All Thyself impart, Form’d in each Believing Heart.
Better, no? Notice, also, that the first verse of Wesley’s “Hymn for Christmas-Day” ends with the triumphant line, “Christ the Lord is born today!” just as the “Hymn for Easter Day” opens with “Christ the Lord is risen today!”
So when did we finally get to the tune we know for “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” today? Over one hundred years after Wesley first published the hymn, the English musician and tenor William H. Cummings gave us the now-familiar musical setting. Where did he get it? Well, in Leipzig, Germany, the home of J. S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn, threw a wild party for the 400-year anniversary of movable type. Felix Mendelssohn composed a secular cantata honoring Johannes Gutenberg as part of the festivities, and it was performed in the market square (pictured here) on June 24, 1840.
Part of Cummings’ innovation was to include the memorable tag of “Hark! The herald angels sing/ Glory to the newborn King!” at the end of every verse, reiterating the annunciation to the shepherds each time. And I like to think of the original phrase, of the welkin, the whole sky, ringing with exuberance and glory to the newborn King.
The opening of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life shows a conversation that seems to be happening among the stars. We learn that God and the angels are concerned about George Bailey, a hard-working family man in Bedford Falls who has hit rock-bottom and is contemplating suicide. In response to the several prayers offered for George, God and the angels decide to send a 2nd class angel, Clarence Odbody, who has not yet earned his angel wings, to help out. By the end of the film, when George is surrounded by friends and family who rally behind him on Christmas Eve 1945, they all sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The clip at the beginning of this post shows how when a bell rings nearby, George and his family presume that an angel has earned his wings. In preparing today’s post, I liked to wonder how many angels “earned their wings” when all the welkin rang on the first Christmas.
This carol is not of the quiet scene at the manger. Rather, this portrays a massive joining of heaven and earth, of nations, of shepherds and kings, and amid all of the glory and grandeur, the setting in It’s a Wonderful Life also joins this large scope with the needs of the individual, whether an ordinary person or an inauspicious angel. This particular film context pairs the joyous, heavenly involvement of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with “Auld Lang Syne”, a reminder to not forget those around us, and both songs capture the spirit of the season.
I like to guess what culture and what time period these Christmas songs come from. It’s like an old-fashioned fair booth of “guess my age” or “guess my weight,” but with weightless Christmas songs instead. So with that, guess when today’s carol was written. From the looks of the YouTube cover photo the minor key of the carol, and the archaic-sounding lyrics (such as “holpen,” the Middle English form of “help”), you might understandably peg it as hailing from the middle ages.
Nope. It was written around 1860 by William Morris and sung to an old French tune which Marin Marais used for a dance in his 1706 opera Alcyone. A few things about these characters: William Morris was a key figure in the British Arts and Crafts movement that sought to generate and maintain awareness of traditional British textiles. Marin Marais was a court composer at Versailles and did very well, but of course he lived decades before William Morris was born. Instead, Edmund Sedding, a British architect, learned of the tune from the then-organist at the Chartres Cathedral, and published the song in Sedding’s 1860 collection of carols, Nine Antient and Goodly Carols for the Merry Tide of Christmas. Except it wasn’t ancient at all; it was a hot new release. Tricksy. What does it have to do with a film? Not much that I can tell; I’ve just loved it for a long time and decided I wanted to finally include it in a countdown.
The carol is from the first-person perspective of someone poor, announcing the birth of Jesus to his presumably poor friends. I picture someone finding out the extraordinary news that Jesus is born, running to a full and friendly pub, bursting through the door, and announcing the opening lines:
Masters in this Hall, Hear ye news to-day Brought from over sea, And ever I you pray
The carol continues in a rousing fashion with others joining in. The chorus, which is repeated after each verse anglicizes the French “noël” meaning “nativity” to “nowell” and ends with the lines:
God to-day hath poor folk raised
And cast a-down the proud.
Get together with your masters (friends) in a hall if you can this season, and celebrate Christmas with all the gusto you’ve got.