Yuletide Carols

by Mary Hrovat

In 1995, I made two Christmas mixtapes that I labeled A Very Mary Christmas. I had recently gone through a period of wondering whether it made sense to go on celebrating Christmas, given that I’d stopped believing in the Christian story years earlier. In particular, I’d thought about whether I wanted to go on listening to Christmas music—especially the old traditional carols I love, many of which have explicitly religious lyrics. In the end, I decided that there were other good reasons to celebrate the time around the winter solstice. I made the mixtapes in a spirit of enjoying winter and celebrating both the darkness and the light to be found in family and friends. I kept some of the traditional carols (some only in instrumental versions) and religious music—Handel’s Messiah, for example. In addition, I included music that’s not traditionally considered Christmas music or even winter music; hence the now mildly embarrassing substitution of Mary for Merry.

I put together four 45-minute playlists that covered two 90-minutes cassettes. The first playlist was essentially my very own greatest hits for December. I opened with Jethro Tull’s “Ring Out, Solstice Bells” and followed that up with Canzona per sonare No. 2 by Giovanni Gabrieli, which has always seemed particularly jubilant to me. This playlist included my favorite songs from two albums I remembered from my childhood: one of the Robert Shaw Chorale singing traditional carols a cappella, and a 1963 album called The Spirit of Christmas with the Living Strings. I’m not sure I’d like that one if I heard it for the first time now, but musical taste doesn’t have much to do with it. That album calls up my childhood Christmases as no other music does—a mixed blessing, but it’s too deeply embedded in my memories to ignore.

The second playlist included quieter music and the more somber yearning carols; it was more about winter darkness and stillness than about Christmas. I opened it with the Adagio commonly attributed to Tomaso Albinoni, because it struck me as expressing a kind of radiant darkness, and closed it with the yearning pas de deux from near the end of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. In between came slow solemn carols, for example, “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” I found a larger symbolism in the idea of living through dark times and waiting in hope for the light to return.

The third playlist was a lesser greatest hits, with lots of bits from Messiah and the Nutcracker. The fourth playlist was almost entirely secular: “Deck the Halls,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Home for the Holidays,” and so on. It was about good cheer, family, food, and snow.

I think I saw these mixtapes as being the definitive complement to the holiday albums I had on vinyl or tape. They represented my solution to what I saw at the time as the problem of holiday music. I may even have believed they would adequately express the meaning of Christmas for me for the foreseeable future. No sooner had I finished recording those two tapes, however, than I started remembering or discovering music I wanted to add. I was introduced to “Ding Dong! Merrily on High” when the band at my sons’ high school played it in a holiday concert, for example. I went to the library, found the song on a vinyl album, and recorded it to a third tape, with no cute name and an idea that someday I’d put together another playlist.

When I made those AVMC tapes, I hadn’t grasped that we were in the twilight days of mixtapes. I also hadn’t seriously engaged with the concept of CDs, and I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to reproduce some of my library of vinyl and tapes on CD. I was pleased simply to have all of the old holiday music I remembered from albums transferred to cassette tapes (sigh). 

I still have the first two mixtapes, although I rarely listen to them. The sequence of songs is familiar, but they sound odd to me now. I no longer listen to the Nutcracker and Messiah recordings I used, for one thing. But the main reason they sound strange is that my two mixtapes later became four CDs with additional or slightly different tracks, and now my holiday music consists of an indeterminate number of playlists that cover about 10 hours.

I tend to be a late and grudging adopter of new technology (and I still have my CDs), but I immediately grasped the value of online music. I reproduced the four AVMC CDs as playlists in Apple Music, and then I started to tinker with them. I searched for better recordings of certain songs, ultimately selecting multiple versions of some of my favorites. As I ran across new-to-me Christmas or winter music—at concerts on campus, for example—I looked up recordings on Apple Music, which often led me to more music in the same vein.

Sometimes I’d use a single song from an album for my playlists, but some entire albums became favorites: An Old English Christmas, by Craig Duncan, A Merry Christmas!, by the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Christmas with the George Shearing Quintet. I learned that the Kingston Trio had made a Christmas album; I hadn’t known about it, even though my father listened to their music. In fact I’ve studded my playlists with songs from various previously unknown or quirky Christmas albums, including A Toolbox Christmas, by Woody Phillips, and Jingle All the Way, by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (source of the only recording of Jingle Bells on the playlists). 

I became fairly picky about recordings of the traditional carols. There are a few older carols I listen to mainly in instrumental versions; even as a child I found the words of “O Holy Night” to represent a particular sort of sentimental religiosity that I didn’t care for. However, I find other old lyrics very beautiful, and I wanted to find recordings with all the verses in the version I’d first learned. (It’s a relatively harmless outlet for this sort of obsession, I suppose.) For example, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” has a couple of comforting verses that I remember from early adulthood:

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.

I had a dim memory from childhood that “We Three Kings” is an elaborate story-song that tells in several verses the meaning of each gift the Wise Men brought, and I found a recording with all five verses. The verse about myrrh is rather dark: 

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing,
Bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

It’s a wonder that none of the guests at my Christmas Eve dinners has ever complained about this song. 

In addition to finding all these old lyrics, I learned some new ones. I sing along with parts of “Il est né,” a song I’d never heard of until well into adulthood, and in French to boot. I found a choral recording of “Good King Wenceslas” with all the verses and discovered that it’s a story-song that tells of a miracle. I’ve memorized most of the lyrics, and I sing along with great gusto. “Bring me flesh and bring me wine! Bring me pine logs hither!” sings the king, who plans to take these things to a poor peasant on a snowy night. When his loyal page, accompanying him and the pine logs etc., sings, “Fails my heart I know not how; I can go no longer,” the king responds, “Mark my footsteps, good my page. Tread thou in them boldly.” And the page finds the ground miraculously warmed, and himself revived. It is absolutely the best music to sing along with late at night when I’m cleaning up after baking the Christmas cookies.

All my life I’ve loved the beautiful lyrics about winter, night, and nature in traditional carols. The first lyrics I remember noticing as a child were the lines about Bethlehem sleeping dreamlessly as the stars pass silently overhead (“O Little Town of Bethlehem”). I also love the line “Skies are glowing, the heavens are cloudless,” from “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella,” and “The rising of the sun and the running of the deer,” from the chorus of “The Holly and the Ivy.” As I explored the music of the season, I found more lovely lyrics, e.g., “Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,” from “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

I also found a number of traditional tunes that were about winter festivities with little or no religious content—various wassailing songs I hadn’t been familiar with, for example, and the rollicking “Boar’s Head Carol.” While I’m on the subject of secular carols and memorable lyrics, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention A Consort of Christmas Carols by P.D.Q. Bach (a.k.a. Peter Schickele), which consists of “Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John,” “O Little Town of Hackensack,” and “Good King Kong.” My holiday season wouldn’t be complete without these musically and verbally playful songs.

I think I saw the original mixtapes as a repository for various memories that I wanted to preserve. I’d just discovered the Living Strings album on vinyl at the library. It had a strong emotional impact, in part because I hadn’t heard it for some years. According to one theory, memories aren’t stored like books on a shelf that you consult when you recall them; rather, they’re reconstructed, or re-assembled, each time they come to consciousness. I’ve found that over time, my original memories of individual songs or albums become less sharp; they blend with memories of all the other Christmases I’ve heard the music. The playlists have become less a container for memories of childhood and early adulthood and more a reflection of all my Christmases. I’ve outgrown my parents’ interpretation of the season and lived my way into my own. 

The mixtapes included carols from an album called A Music Box Christmas. The album was owned by the person I was dating at the time. It wasn’t a happy relationship, and after it ended, I thought about making a new set of mixtapes with other songs to replace the music box carols. But I liked the music, and there’s a lot of inertia involved in mixtapes, so I never did swap out those songs. By the time I’d moved to online playlists, which are much more flexible, the songs had more or less lost their painful associations. In fact, I’d become accustomed to them, and it started to seem as if they’d always been there. They’re still there.

The playlists continue to evolve. This year I added my very first rendition of “Frosty the Snowman,” a song I never cared for until I heard this version (I say “Tequila” at the end of it, of course). AVMC 1 and 2 are much longer than the original two playlists but follow the same themes (my most favorite songs and quiet music, respectively). There’s not really much to distinguish AVMC 3, 4, and 5, and at some point I also made AVMC Jazz and AVMC Folk/Traditional, which I listen to on shuffle. Maybe I’ve gone a bit overboard? But although the meaning of the songs, and of the season, have shifted for me and will probably shift further, I like having this music about me as we go into the cold and mysterious dark.

Image by HANSUAN FABREGAS from Pixabay

You can see more of my work at MaryHrovat.com.