A word on the words of Christmas.

carols by candlelightChristmas is a wonderful time for words and voices.  Once a year the spoken and sung sounds of Christmas – those lovely simple carols and bible readings, bring poetry, music and ceremony into daily life.

For the traditionally minded,  a Festival of Nine lessons and carols  is hard to beat. Begun at Kings College Cambridge in 1918 by a Dean who wanted a more imaginative approach to worship, the service was first broadcast  around the world in 1930. It’s  now heard and seen by millions, and is the model for services in the Anglican tradition  world-wide. Readings may vary, and a new carol is commissioned every year,  showing Kings’ commitment to contemporary music, and starting a new tradition.

aust carols frontContemporary carols were also taught in Sydney at my primary  school.  A set of  Australian Christmas Carols*  (with outback settings) was written  in the 1950’s and 60’s  by William James, who was the first Director of Music at what is now the ABC.  His lyricist was  ABC staff writer John Wheeler.  The attempt to create vernacular carols was  worthwhile, and they had pretty melodies, but the words were contrived, and even to a child they seemed  poor substitutes for the real thing.  Hard to imagine drovers could be ‘blythe and  gay’, and that  ‘Noel Noel’ would be in their vocabulary.  And as for ‘the north wind tossing the leaves’ and ‘the red dust over the town’,  why waste time singing about it, or the wretched ‘sparrows under the eaves’ – that was just ordinary life.  To me Christmas needed the romance of  something happening elsewhere, where they knew how to do these things properly.

Give me  the quiet majesty of Once in Royal David’s City, or the vim and zip of Deck the Halls, or a lovely simple Silent Night.   Then  and now  I  especially love  a lung-busting whack at  Hark the Herald Angels Sing (with organ and 500 others).  Words are by the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, but the triumphal tune is adapted from something by Mendelssohn,  who gave  us  that Wedding March.

A close second  on my ‘personal favourites’ list  is O Come All Ye Faithful, with the Willcocks descant.  Sir David Willcocks has  a distinguished musical career and  a profound impact on choral singing in the 20th century and since. As Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge  he wrote ‘Carols for Choirs‘.  Begun in the 1960s, his beautiful  versions are now standard for choirs world-wide.  Oxford University Press  says they’re  “the most successful and widely used carol books of the 20th century”,  and his collaborator John Rutter says  ‘Sir David Willcocks has transformed our musical celebration of Christmas’. Amen to that. I met Sir David when he visited Sydney to conduct the Sydney Philharmonia Choir many years ago, and his charm and skill were memorable. Willcocks will turn 93 on December 30th.

If England has given us  the church and the choirs, America provides what’s popular.  The poem A visit from St Nicholas  (as ‘The night before Christmas’  is really called) was  first published in a local paper in  Troy, New York in 1823. It gave Santa eight reindeer, and created the jolly, plump, chimney climber  that is everpresent in holiday cards, movies, television shows, and malls everywhere. Many children have this as their bedtime story on Christmas Eve. My mother was a terrific reader aloud, and I remember loving its bouncy repetitions and assonances.

America gave us  many other Christmas hits:  Away in a Manger, (which I personally find  soppy with its go-nowhere words and tune), Jingle Bells , bizarrely  the first song broadcast from space (in a prank by Gemini 6 astronauts in 1965);  and Bing Crosby’s 1941 hit White Christmaswhich is still the biggest selling single of all time. Its mix of melancholy and comforting images of home  went straight to the hearts of a nation at war.

Apart from the Bible, Christmas has inspired troves of poetry. Unlike those mid-century carols, Australian poets have done well at evoking our real Christmas.  The Australian Poetry Library has  441 poems  with ‘christmas’ in their database.  I especially like Rhyll McMaster’s A Festive Poem  whose hot and scrabbly protagonists are so like us all.  I’d love readers to tell me which are their favourites.

The UK Poetry Society this year  features The Kindness of Trees, written collaboratively with children, which will be on banners around the Christmas Tree in Trafalgar Square.

The Academy of American Poets’ site Poetry.org, has  a splendid  article about Christmas poetry, with links to classic Christmas poems here, (and a short list for your immediate consumption below).

Best Christmas Poems – with thanks to Poetry.org

A Visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore (or Henry Livingston)
Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Noël” by Anne Porter
“For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” by W. H. Auden
“Christmas” by John Betjeman
“Star of the Nativity” by Joseph Brodsky
Christmas Trees” by Robert Frost
The Shivering Beggar” by Robert Graves
“Christ Climbed Down” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
The Savior must have been a docile Gentleman” by Emily Dickinson
Christmas at Sea” by Robert Louis Stevenson
A Hymn on the Nativity of My Savior” by Ben Jonson
Old Santeclaus” by Clement Clark Moore
from Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Prologue of the Earthly Paradise” by William Morris
The Mystic’s Christmas” by John Greenleaf Whittier
Ecce Puer” by James Joyce
Karma” by Edwin Arlington Robinson
The Thread of Life” by Christina Rossetti
“Messiah (Christmas Portions)” by Mark Doty
“Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost
“At Christmas” by Edgar Guest
The Oxen” by Thomas Hardy
“Come, bring with a noise” by Robert Herrick
“Christmas Tree” by James Merrill
On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” by John Milton
A Christmas Carol” by Christina Rossetti
“Heigh Ho, The Holly” by William Shakespeare
“The Burning Babe” by Robert Southwell
“Ring Out, Wild Bells” by Lord Alfred Tennyson
The Mahogany Tree” by William Thackeray
A Christmas Carol” by George Wither
Skating in Harlem, Christmas Day” by Cynthia Zarin


3 thoughts on “A word on the words of Christmas.

  1. Pingback: Oh come all ye faithful, learn the words to traditional carols « just telling it as it is

  2. Pingback: Happy Holidays 2012! « Ed Robinson's Blog

  3. It also may be noted that the W.G. James carols were premiered by the Hurlstone Choral Society (the previous name for the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs).

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