Christmas carols

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(Host) Commentator Tom Slayton reflects on the pagan and Christian rituals of Christmas.

Christmas is complex because of its history. Sometime in the early Middle Ages an ancient pagan holiday was kidnapped by the Christian church for its own purposes. That is why there are pagan echoes of revelry and nature worship woven around the timeless Christmas story of a miraculous baby, born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes and visited by shepherds and kings.

The music of Christmas, like the great, untidy holiday itself, is an enormous stew of cultural sources and influences, continually pulling apart and reshaping itself. And that is why one of my favorite parts of Christmas present has long been the music of Christmas past – not just the familiar late Victorian Christmas carols we all learn as children, or Handel’s Messiah (though I love it). No, many of my favorites are the truly strange older folk songs and carols that grew out of the ancient midwinter revels, some of them going back beyond recorded history and celebrating the cycle of the seasons, the natural world, and the near-universal fears of the year’s dark time — December and January.

You can hear some of this music live each holiday season in the Christmas Revels at Dartmouth and elsewhere, or the “Nowell Sing We Clear” concerts featuring the Englishmen John Roberts and Tony Barrand from Marlboro. A classic merging of pagan and church-approved elements can be heard clearly in “The Holly and the Ivy,” a carol in which the rising of the sun is celebrated, along with the running of the deer, the sweet-singing (presumably Christian) choir, and the holly – an ancient mid-winter symbol of life because it maintains its vivid green leaves after summer is long over. The song is set to a lively 6/8 tune that is hard to resist dancing to – another link to the pagan partying that predated Christmas (and another reason why the holiday has long been suspect to strict Christians).

Or consider the strange, angry story narrated in the carol “The Bitter Withy,” in which our infant savior Jesus goes to play ball with some rich children, and when they make fun of his peasant origins, builds a bridge of sunbeams that collapses and drowns his nasty little playmates. Jesus’s prank gets reported to his mother, Mary Mild, who puts him across her knee and whips his bottom with a withy switch – a willow wand. We’re a long way from the reverence of “Silent Night” here, which may be why the carol is so strangely appealing to me.

Another of my favorites is “The Apple Tree Carol,” in which a band of wassailers carols an apple tree in hopes that it will bring them another year of health and prosperity. The druidic roots of that lovely hymn sung to a tree could not be clearer.

But whether we are worshipping nature, beating back the darkness, or celebrating the birth of Jesus, the spirit of the season should be clear. For millennia it has been true: it’s love, wit, mercy and generosity that will get us through the dark days and bring us into the light.

Tom Slayton is editor of Vermont Life magazine.

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