A Christmas music interlude: ‘Chains shall he break’

YouTube Preview Image

That’s Pussy Willow playing “We Three Queens,” via Joe Jervis, who calls this, “The first theremin-drag-Xmas song.”

He had me at “theremin.”

Traditionalist Christians, of course, won’t appreciate what Pussy Willow is doing there. Because it’s still Advent and they shouldn’t be performing Christmas carols until the 25th.

This video from Zack Hunt respectfully features an Advent song: Napoleon Dynamite dancing to Michael W. Smith’s CCM classic “Emmanuel.”

Jim McGrath tells us about a new composition. “The Chelsea Carol” is lovely. I have to admit, though, that when I read that title I was hoping for something else — by Leonard Cohen or Patti Smith or Lou Reed, maybe.

(I’m a fan of seedy New York Christmas songs.)

All of the above is really just an excuse to link again to Richard Beck on “Christmas Carols as Resistance Literature.” Here he discusses “O Holy Night”:

Recall that the song and the French poem were written in 1847. The English version was written in 1855, six years before the American Civil War and eight years before the Emancipation Proclamation. “O Holy Night,” it turns out, was a song of political resistance and protest. Imagine Americans singing in the years leading up to the Civil War the lyrics “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.”

“O Holy Night” as political protest. A Christmas carol as resistance literature.

This is as it should be. Consider the words of the very first Christmas song, Mary’s Magnificat.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

And that, Charlie Brown, is what Christmas is all about.

  • histrogeek

    Also traditionalists will have a problem because the monarchs of the Orient song is an Epiphany song, so two seasons away. Next someone will be singing Alleluia in Lent. O mores, o tempora…

  • LL

    No, no, no, Christmas is about making sure everybody knows you’re the right kind of Christian, and throughout the entire month of December (actually, from Thanksgiving to Dec. 31), no other belief or sentiment is to be expressed or Christians are being disrespected. 

    Also, Christianity is about being rich. Otherwise, that book about praying for money wouldn’t be so popular. 

  • nerdycellist

    I thought the meaning of Christmas was that everybody has to acknowledge it, and seasonal evergreen trees MUST be referred to as Christmas Trees, just like in the Bible. Otherwise, Christians are being oppressed.

  • http://dumas1.livejournal.com/ Winter

     Speaking of letting people know you’re Christian, I have a neighbour whose elaborate yearly Christmas display includes a six-foot light-up cross on their roof. Ok, it may not be six feet, but it’s pretty tall. It is just the tackiest thing ever, and I’ve been to a wedding where the bride and groom came in led by kids holding neon lightsabers.

    They also have lights all over the lawn, Santa’s sleigh, and inflatable light-up this that and the other, but that cross is just over the line. If I could, I’d put up a glowing dragon running the length of my roof for the Chinese New Year, but I hate heights.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Wish I’d thought of the lightsabers for my wedding … sounds fun and festive.

  • http://twitter.com/mikailborg Michael O’Brien

    I officiated a wedding once in my Jedi robes by request, although someone recognized by the state had to sign the papers. The groom passed away less than a year later, but the bride still thanks me on occasion for helping make the day even more memorable.

  • histrogeek

     I “love” people using a cross to put the “Christ in Christmas.” There is a completely appropriate and Christian symbol for the season and the cross ain’t it. What do they have against shepherds and wise guys, to say nothing of Mary and Joseph?

  • histrogeek

     Being offended by people not being sufficiently deferential to the hegemonic culture is a Christmas tradition, at least in the United States. Like gift-giving, drug-induced stop-motion animation, and caroling, without the warmth or fun. 

  • http://twitter.com/mikailborg Michael O’Brien

    Oh, hey, thanks for reminding me that I wanted to dig out “A Will Vinton Claymation Christmas” to show the housemates.

  • http://twitter.com/shutsumon Becka Sutton

    Hey, Fred, I know you live in Pennsylvania and wondered if you’d seen this http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/philadelphiaexperiment/item/48593 (I have no idea about Pennsylvania’s geography so I’ve no idea if your any where near Philadelphia but I thought it might interest you anyway).

  • Carstonio

    Christmas music with a theremin? I’m in. I still have a small one that I built years ago from an article in an electronics magazine.

  • Tricksterson

    Wise guys?  I didn’t know Joseph was a made man.

  • AnonymousSam

    Pfft. The Bible doesn’t have much good to say about Christmas trees either.

    Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
    Thus
    saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the
    signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
    For the customs of
    the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the
    hands of the workman, with the axe.
    They deck it with silver and with gold;
    they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jess-Goodwin/28602067 Jess Goodwin

    You have no idea how many tiresome people I’ve heard “explaining” that the chains — in both the French and English versions — actually represent spiritual bondage to sin, and that there is *no* social justice context to this song whatsoever, That’s just the ignorance of liberals.

    On second thought, you probably do have an idea.

  • Fusina

    “For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of
    the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.”

    Love it! Err, and it is from Jeremiah 10. I wanted to see where, as I couldn’t remember seeing this before. And the location explains that.

  • ReverendRef

    Traditionalist Christians . . .

    Um . . . could we say traditional Christians.  I am very traditional, but I’m not a traditionalist.

    I don’t allow Christmas hymns before Christmas (with the one exception coming during an Advent Lessons & Carols service where I sneak one or two in because they match the readings).  I’ve been calling radio stations for the last 20 years to request Christmas songs between December 25 and January 5.

    histrogeek: Also traditionalists will have a problem because the monarchs of the Orient song is an Epiphany song

    I never understood why The first Nowell was a Christmas song.  Seriously — one verse about shepherds and the rest all have to do with the guys from the east.  I have it down for our Epiphany service, though.

    Next someone will be singing Alleluia in Lent.   Over my dead body.

    I managed to take a Sunday off recently and had time to visit another church.  At the end of the service, the congregation concluded the dismissal with, “Alleluia, alleluia!”  Mrs. Ref and I just looked at each other with a deep sadness.  And, yes, at Morning Prayer the next day I did repent of my liturgical snootiness.

    histrogeek:  What do they have against shepherds and wise guys, to say nothing of Mary and Joseph? 

    I have a fantasy of stealing any Wise Men who appear at Nativity scenes too early — with the full intention of returning them on January 6, Epiphany.

    What was I saying about liturgical snootiness???

  • TheDarkArtist

    I loooooove Christmas carols. I’m not a huge fan of modern Christmas songs, though that’s by no means universally true.

    “O Holy Night” gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. The switch to-and-from the minor during the chorus is just amazing. I’m also a fan of “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen”, which I’ve meant to learn how to play on the guitar since I started playing guitar many, many moons ago, but have never gotten around to learning.

    Also, I can’t sing or listen to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” without crying. I seriously tear up just thinking about it.

  • Amaryllis

     Traditionalist Christians, of course, won’t appreciate what Pussy Willow
    is doing there. Because it’s still Advent and they shouldn’t be
    performing Christmas carols until the 25th.

    Damn straight.

    Or at least, as the Reverend makes clear, traditional Christians.

    Dear ReverendRef, thanks for fighting the good fight.

  • Amaryllis

    Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good. – Jeremiah 10:5

    No, seriously, I was very surprised when I found out that there were people who read this section as a condemnation of Christmas trees. Talk about reading without context.

    Although, I suppose that there are some who’ll loudly insist that Christmas trees are totally secular, of course we don’t use them in worship, but don’t you dare call them “holiday trees.”

  • Carstonio

    Despite the radio stations that flip to all-Christmas well before Thanksgiving, hearing the music before the holiday has always been part of the anticipation for me. I might support a divide where the liturgical songs are played after the 25th, reserving the earlier period for the pop songs.

  • Amaryllis

    The Angels sang
    To the highest heavens;
    The Shepherds heard
    And turned towards the sky;
    And the echo replied
    For the sake of the poor waiting for gold.

    The Son of Peace is born to us,
    A corn seed thrown to the wind,
    Small grain of love,
    For the sake of joy in a world without gold.

    Children will sing,
    Hands open to the world,
    Children will follow
    The Son of Peace always,
    The echo strained through them
    Will remain alive, planted in them.

    - from “An Elez a gane,” by Job An Irien (another poet-priest), translated from the Breton

  • http://flickr.com/photos/sedary_raymaker/ Naked Bunny with a Whip

    You complain, but I’ll bet you enjoy attending the Easter egg hunts around your neighbor’s 1/2 scale manger scene.

  • ReverendRef

     I can’t sing or listen to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” without crying. I seriously tear up just thinking about it.

    “Little Drummer Boy” does the same thing to me.

  • ReverendRef

     I’m okay with radio stations playing Christmas music ahead of time — I get it, they aren’t church.

    I’m just trying to get them to realize that The Twelve Days of Christmas BEGIN on December 25 and run through January 1.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     Wait, they’d have to do two days at once for that to work!

  • ReverendRef

     Yeah . . . fixed that — December 25 to January 5.

  • Dash1

    @histrogeek:disqus blockquote> shepherds and wise guys, to say nothing of Mary and Joseph?

    @099fb591b48898d10a3e8609d81df286:disqus

    Wise guys?  I didn’t know Joseph was a made man.

    “Yo! You de innkeeper? Yeah, t’ought so. Look, da little lady is tired, she’s about to give birt’. I’m sure you and your lovely wife can find a nice place out of da way where our friends here can have da baby wit’out a lot of noise and commotion from the other guests, right? You fix dat up for our friends here, we won’t forget it, ya know what I mean?”

  • reynard61

    “Also, I can’t sing or listen to ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ without crying. I seriously tear up just thinking about it.”

    I can’t listen to it without laughing at it. I mean, seriously:

    “A Child, a child / shivers in the cold / let us bring him silver and gold…”

    Um, no; you bring the poor kid a f***in’ *blanket!!!*

    Stupidest. Christmas song. Ever.

  • reynard61

    “Yo, You de innkeeper? Yeah, t’ought so. Look, da little lady is tired, she’s about to give birt’. I’m sure you and your lovely wife can find a nice place out of da way where our friends here can have da baby wit’out a lot of noise and commotion from the other guests, right? You fix dat up for our friends here, we won’t forget it, ya know what I mean?”

    tl;dr: “Yo, buddy! Nice lookin’ inn youse got here. Be a shame if anyt’in’ was ta happen to it…”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I love O Holy Night, for exactly those lyrics. Brilliant.

  • Carstonio

    I love O Holy Night because of the melody and the dramatic chord changes.

     Do You Hear What I Hear originated as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the imagery suggests a nuclear attack. I’ve long suspected that Cold War fears also inspired the teenage death ballads of the era like Teen Angel and Last Kiss.

  • Amaryllis

    I like the lyrics of “O Holy Night,” but I think I’ve overdosed on over-dramatic renditions of it.

    As a grammar purist, don’t ask me to listen to “I Wonder as I Wander.” 

    As a stupidly sentimental mother, the Christmas songs that make me cry are the lullabies.

  • http://jamoche.dreamwidth.org/ Jamoche

    Our new carol this year is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomorrow_Shall_Be_My_Dancing_Day (our arrangement only uses the first two verses) which Wikipedia says “It could be thought that the carol came from a folk song which was then adapted.” 

    Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
    I would my true love did so chance
    To see the legend of my play,
    To call my true love to my dance;
    Chorus
    Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love, This have I done for my true love.

    Gee, ya think?

  • Amanda

    For Veteran’s Day this year at my UU Church the minister had us sing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” I never really knew the words to the song, but as we sang it from our hymnals, I was like, “Wow, this is a cooler song than I thought.”

    Afterward the minister explained why he’s “having us sing Christmas songs in November”, and explained it’s not so much a Christmas song (as it doesn’t explicitly mention the birth of Jesus, at least not in the original version), and more an anti-war song.

    It was also written by another UU minister.

    So now I like that song even more, and thanks to this post, feel the same way about “O Holy Night.”

    (Unfortunately it was slightly ruined by the South Park Christmas special with Cartman sings a version of “O Holy Night” about how great it is that it’s the night that he gets presents. I can’t hear the real version of the song anymore without thinking of that.)

  • Amanda

    Slight correction: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was written by a Unitarian minister. I guess that was before the merge.

    It’s disappointing that these two verses are often omitted in a lot of the recordings I can find. They’re the real meat of the song:Yet with the woes of sin and strifeThe world has suffered long;Beneath the angel-strain have rolledTwo thousand years of wrong;And man, at war with man, hears notThe love-song which they bring;O hush the noise, ye men of strife,And hear the angels sing.And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,Whose forms are bending low,Who toil along the climbing wayWith painful steps and slow,Look now! for glad and golden hourscome swiftly on the wing.O rest beside the weary road,And hear the angels sing!

  • Carstonio

    I love the idea that It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Amazing Grace, O Little Town of Bethlehem, I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing, and House of the Rising Sun are interchangeable in their melodies.

  • EllieMurasaki

    There’s more verses?

    COOL.

    Hey, can you rec me a recording that’s got all the verses?

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     Also the Theme From Gilligan’s Island

  • Tricksterson

    Because it couldn’t possibly mean both?

  • Tricksterson

    I agree.  People should call them what they are.  Yule trees!

  • Tricksterson

    The alternative being that the “wise guys” were Larry, Moe and Curly.

  • Tricksterson

    Screw the frankincense and myrrh (What if Jesus had allergies?) but some firewood might be nice.

  • EllieMurasaki

    This isn’t pertinent to anything, but the corporation that I’m looking at the incorporation document for:

    Every seven years after the date of incorporation, on the next Day of Atonement, all debts held by [corp] will be released entirely and all debtors will be absolved of any obligation to repay. [...] Forty-nine years after the date of incorporation, on the next Day of Atonement, the Organization will be dissolved, all assets except the [charitable trust fund] will be liquidated [...] Dissolution will be marked by a one week celebration of Democracy and Goodwill toward Humanity, a sincere and public effort to seek Forgiveness for faults in errors in [corp]‘s policies, services, and management, and a proclamation of Liberty throughout [county]. This will be a time to rejoice. It will be a Jubilee. [...] This paragraph may not be altered or amended in any way by any party under any circumstances for the duration of the existence of the Corporation.
    Bold in original. Capital letters, too.

  • Dash1

     I’m not sure that’s do-able in the medium of print, but …
    Moe: OK, I got the gold. Whatta you guys got?
    Larry: I wasn’t sure what to get, so I picked up this cake of something from the men’s room. You know how smelly things can get, especially in a stable.
    Moe: Well, it’s seen better days, but let’s hope they don’t notice. Curly?
    Curly: I got the Boris Karloff DVD and something by Agatha Christie.
    Moe and Larry: What?
    Curly (pulling out script): Says right here: Gold, Frankenstein, and Moider.
    Moe: Why I oughta….
    [And then Curly makes his customary series of noises, which can't be represented without the International Phonetic Alphabet, and even then...]

    [And yes, in the time of the Three Stooges, frankincense was used to scent men's rooms.]

  • Nicanthiel

    Unless, of course, you’re one of us filthy heathens, and the Twelve Days (Nights, really), begin on the 21st (sunset 20th) and go through the 1st . ;)

  • ReverendRef

     Unless, of course, you’re one of us filthy heathens,

    I AM an Episcopal priest.  I’m sure I qualify in the eyes of the RTC’s.

  • Pinko Crat

    So many versions of O Holy Night omit the verse about breaking chains and oppression!  It’s one of my favorite Leftmas songs–are they just chicken?  Grrrrr

    I’ve been doing an atheist-reviews-Christmas-music the past week or so and next I plan to write about Nativity carols, which (unlike Santa songs) I actually enjoy.

    http://pinkocrat.wordpress.com/2012/12/09/christmas-music-part-i/


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X