The Magazine

Here We Come A-Wassailing

Joseph Bottum, caroler

Dec 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 14 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes and What the gladsome tidings be and We three kings of Orient are--to say nothing of if thou knowst it telling: Have you ever noticed just how weird the grammar and syntax of Christmas carols are? Or I guess that should be: The songs of Christmas, noticed thou, / the strangeness filled with are--and how?

The weirdest may be "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," whose phrasings are now so alien that even the first line gets regularly mangled--punctuated (and sung) as God rest ye, merry gentlemen, which suggests the gentlemen have made so merry that God needs to send them sleep, saving us from their wassailed warbling through the streets. The original meaning was "rest" in the sense of "keep," requiring the comma in a different place: God rest ye merry, gentlemen, a prayer that God keep joy in the hearts of those gentlemen. Not that this stops them from spiking the eggnog at the office party, but at least it might lessen the next day's hangover.

Meanwhile, a later verse tells us that a blessèd angel came / and unto certain shepherds / brought tidings of the same. What same? How that in Bethlehem was born / the Son of God by name, of course, and there's something wonderful about that line. It's incompetent poetry, filler to make a rhyme of the most naïve sort--by name, forsooth--and it's really charming in its way.

Even odder is the moment when we're told that the blessèd babe was laid within a manger--the which his Mother Mary / did nothing take in scorn. You'd think that would create some which-witch confusion for modern singers, but, in my experience, not even children hesitate at the line. English doesn't use the which much any more. Still, when carolers sing it out, the phrase seems to come from the authentic heart of the language. It feels right, somehow. It feels old.

That feeling of oldness, that power to seem traditional, remains a requirement of the music--even though the Christmas carol is essentially a Victorian invention. Not that people didn't sing seasonal songs before the nineteenth century. Ever since St. Augustine came to Canterbury, England has been full of local hymns, from "Christus Est Natus" to "The Cherry Tree Carol." But the Victorians--especially Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, with their 1871 collection Christmas Carols New and Old--were the ones who systematized it all.

The universal Christmas canon they established contained some genuinely older songs: "The First Nowell," for instance, and the Wesleyan "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Much of what the Victorians did, however, was write new songs they tried to make sound traditional.

I used to mock the result: the endless "thees" and "thous," the pretentiously archaic syntax, the inversions and padding for rhyme. But then, this year, I was asked to write a Christmas song ("something new, but make it sound old, okay?"), and my sympathy for those poor carol writers suddenly increased. Easy this not is.

I started with Bramley's own "Carol for Christmas Eve"--a little-remembered song with a strong anthem for its melody but lyrics with all the worst Victorian faults. Listen, Lordings, unto me, a tale I will you tell, it opens, which, as on this night of glee, in David's town befell. Surely, I thought, it will be simple to take the melody and dash off words better than this mess.

Forty hours later, I was still at it. The Victorians were right: Christmas carols need to sound traditional; they have to feel old even when they're new. They want to come from the deep places of the language, because they're trying to speak of the deepest things of the world. Who could ever fulfill that desire? Despite all my wish to be inventive, I ended up with standard narrative:

Rise up, shepherds, raise your eyes:

the angels sweep the skies.

Like snowflakes, they swirl and dance,

a storm of wild surprise.

All cold stains of sin and winter

washed away by his birth:

love will make the world new green

and wonders fill the earth.

And the usual call for joy in the chorus:

Rise up (they sang), rise up (they sang).

Rise up and sing: the world will spring

fresh as the first day's morning.

Song of songs and king of kings--

such joys our Savior brings.

Standard, usual: the same old Christmas stuff. But maybe that's all right. The singers seemed to like it when I gave them the four verses I finally managed to scribble out. "It sounds old-fashioned," they said--the which is about as much praise as I could hope for.

JOSEPH BOTTUM