So. Back from a couple of Carol Services and time for a few reflections on Christmas carols. I’m a little worried this might come across as unseasonal and grumpy (Scrooge rather than Grinch), but as I’m standing there singing I can’t help paying attention to the words.
And what words there are.
Let’s start with O come all ye faithful, a carol whose words and tune are not so much married as only sporadically cohabiting. The most notable line:
lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb
We don’t get to sing womb very often, so I wouldn’t want to miss that. But, really, abhors not? I think that must be one of the wondrous results of translation. The original latin phrase is:
Gestant puellæ viscera
which is probably (the phrase was beyond Google Translate) more like carried in a maiden’s bowels (with bowels as a more general ‘insides’ rather than a specific intestines).
Next up, O little town of Bethlehem. Now, this may be an issue with the commonly used tune in the UK, but:
We hear the Christmas angels
Yup, one big fat mis-stress. Anyone want to write a tune which puts the AN into ANgel?
My third carol makes it for, what? Laziness, or pedestrianism. I’m not sure which. God rest ye merry gentlemen:
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same.
Certain shepherds I can live with, but describing the birth of the Messiah in the same terms a nineteenth century clerk might have used for a cargo of umbrellas doesn’t cut it.
So, do I like any carols? Yes. It came upon the midnight clear descends into druidic madness in the last verse, but I still enjoy it (working occasionally on a re-write of the last verse), and The Coventry Carol; in particular:
Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.
It turns out I can forgive sixteenth century tailors quite a lot, including mis-stress (ra-GING) and fanciful word order (chargèd he hath this day). Perhaps I should cut the other carol writers some slack: in the spirit of Christmas.
Hmm. That’s asking a lot. I’ll see what I can do.