The worst musical moments of traditional Christmas: a list

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I’m just gonna jump right in.

50. There’s a moment in “Joy to the World,” my favorite Christmas hymn, when the whole congregation, the whole choir, and every voice track in the whole studio sings, without reflection, the lyrics–at once dazzlingly unsingable and gorgeously heartfelt:

The glo-or-ree-ees uhhhh-uh-uv

followed immediately by,

His righ-igh-tiou-us-neh-eh-ess.

Yes, without time even to take a breath, we force every last dotted rhythm of “his righteousness” through our vocal chords. In this kind of music, there are no winners.

49. “With th’angelic hosts proclaim.” It’s like we’re not reading it right. This and every apostrophe we find in hymnody–“ev’ry,” “heav’n,” “fortress’s’rGodabulw’rkneverfailing.” But this “Hark the Herald” example is egregious because the syntax of other languages–Italian, French, maybe more–governs the familiar article-apostrophe contraction in the song of everyday. I would have expected someone so revolutionary as a Methodist writer to accept once and for all that English is not like its forebears and give up trying to follow their rules. I would have expected hymnbooks to recognize that all human beings are musical and that if we can read music (or read, or share a hymnal, or stay awake in a pew) we can omit syllables to fit a line.

But these are minor cases, blemishes, compared to what follows.

48. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

47. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

46. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

45. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

44. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

43. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

42. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

41. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

40. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

39. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

38. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

37. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

36. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

35. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

34. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

33. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

32. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

31. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

30. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

29. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

28. The lyrics to “The First Noel.”

27. “The angel did say.”

26. Not “the angel said” but “the angel did say.” And it gets worse.

25. “Was to certain poor shepherds.” There are (at least) three possibilities. First, there are many poor shepherds in the world and in the Judean countryside, and the angel did say to only certain of them. Another explanation arises from the impulse to give some insight into the character of the shepherds. They were poor–what else? Well, for one, they were certain. Not quite certain or very certain. But certain. Certain poor shepherds. It’s a possibility. And the third I dismiss but I can’t disregard because when I was a child I interpreted the line as the creation of a knew transitive verb: to certain. “The angel did say”–so I heard the line–“(in order) to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay (about the coming of the Messiah, finding him in Bethlehem, in cloths, in a manger, and this will be a sign, and on earth peace).” It almost works.

24. “On a cold winter’s night”–brace yourselves–“that was so deep.”

23. “So deep.”

22. This is the kind of thing that we say today when a friend makes a particularly truthful comment or that we never quite believe when we try to be poetic and someone says it of us. It is not something we say in any kind of poetry or songwriting. If we were in first grade and brought home a picture we had drawn of that cold and starry Christmas night but that included this caption, our parents would be embarrassed. They would not have put it on the fridge.

21. And this line has been accepted. Decade after decade.

20. Which gets me thinking: is this the world’s worst writing or the world’s worst translation? Some Latin hymn maybe? Thomas Merton decried the bad translation of liturgical texts, calling them “transliterations of the French.” The lyrics of this song are so bad, this could almost explain everything wrong with it.

19. But then I got on wikipedia. And look at the history: 1823 as the first known publication date.

18. England. 1823.

17. So we know it’s not a Latin carol or Old French. It’s not even some wayward carol from the 12th century, some lost sheep making its way through Christmas as this newly codified language called English began to emerge like a retrograde sun in the western hills. Something we need Seamus Heaney to interpret for us.

16. This wasn’t even a song from the 18th-century book of carols that we trounce through with joy each Christmas. We had “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” We had Handel. We had the inspired Charles Wesley canon. And that’s just songwriting. We had Keats, Shelley, the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Was this simply–and painstakingly so–a song meant to teach young children the Christmas story, picking the right parts, clipping their edges, and then pressing the folds into clunky rhyming lines?

15. Did the folk who inhabit our image of 19th-century London–we see them stepping into church for Mass, coats and hats on, songs in their hearts, we watch them returning home from the shops clutching parcels with bright ribbons, copies of The Pickwick Papers in hand–did the whole of respectable English, human, adult society simply shrug and say, “Oh well?”

14. In fact quite literally they did. Get on wikipedia. The Cornish songbook gives the chorus “O well, O well, O well, O well.” You can’t make this stuff up.

13. Cornwall, keeping it classy since the invention of the pasty. And, like, game hens.

12. But then, and perhaps first–and maybe this is the whole point–we listen to the music.

Noel, noel, noel, noel
Born is the King of Israel.

11. How is it that the very words of this song, if we take them at their word, will exacerbate and aggravate, will frustrate us at every turn, will ridicule our conceptions of childhood and Christmas and angels and stars and the robustness of an English literary culture, but that the music, if we listen–and we cannot help be listen–will radiate in our hearts and in our consciousness?

10. The music builds. First, there is the suggestion of good tidings. Shadows and whispers. There’s still darkness. The stiffness of slowly moving centuries in our muscles. Each layer being softly placed upon the next, the song grows. If the song soothes, it is not the large-scale events we recover from here, the mass destructions, brutality and cruelties. This music–this song–was never meant to help us respond to this.

9. But as we sing “Noel,” we hear rise within us the pure and full-throated lament of our daily miseries, quick agonies, friends lost, blank pages, loneliness, the same fears. We will sing the four glowing words, the same Noel, sung first, and then repeated three times, until we are freed.

8. And the bones of the song, the words, may haunt us, but we keep singing, and our lament fills the skies in the flesh and blood of music. The angels, if we follow our vision, have a different substance. Maybe theirs is starlight, “hope’s feathers.” A returning, the first new stirring. And as we join in, our sad song reaches–it does not strain–into joy. We hear the clamor of massbells, smell the sheltering of incense, feel the tenderness of a community awakened. The beautiful feet of the psalm’s messenger, the sprig of an olive branch. We can hear, after the famine, at last, the first hush of rain.

Born is the King of Israel

And all flesh will see it together.

7. And we learn that it is no longer the dark and the cold

6.  but the full singing, the lush notes–a vibrating reed playing on a column of air, so high the last “Noel” soars

5. a crying together with one accord

4. which is, truly, so deep.

3. “So deep.”

2. So

1. Deep.

My romanticism: a trip to Merced

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This break I’m going full Romantic poet.

It crept up on me.

There was a train ride. I was disappointed by the lack of fog. I sat backwards-oriented as the car glided out of the station, leaving Stockton for the memorable names of towns like Turlock, Modesto (where one can smoke for five minutes), Merced. I had the phrase “rapidly vanishing countryside” stuck in my head, and the sensation of barreling through farmland, rushes, meadows, streams, trailer parks and the like, a hundred changing vistas, glimpses of sun-kissed hills, furrows in our common humanity. But I was at this point still reading Virginia Woolf. I had only a historical interest in these things. What would Wordsworth think about the trains? Or Dostoevsky’s Russians? Not “Whence come ye? To what end?” I couldn’t feel the tracks in my bones. Not yet.

Coffee helped my mind flower. Once in Merced, Bethany and I had three cups. We put the baby down for a nap, and we cracked open our phones. Who was it that mentioned Victor Hugo in the first place? In a breath we were encircled by first lines. Stars were points of gold visible through dark branches. Night anointed the solitary traveler with its thick oil. The morning laughed itself to tears on the rose petals.

We went for a walk. (Check plus.) Carrying the young Ezekiel, (Another. Am I making the grade?) I pointed out a fallen leaf and attempted to draw a lesson. (Here the poet professor makes a faint underline and leans forward in his chair. The familiar creak. The inquisitive puff of tobacco smoke). “Leaves are the shape of tears,” I told baby Zeek, “and with reason.” Finding this lesson too harsh, though Bethany quickly pointed out that yes, winter is a time of mourning and dying and Zeek acknowledged that the leaf was indeed red–he might actually have said “truck,” we remembered that leaves can also resemble stars, perfect circles, and those silver fish that sometimes fling themselves in bright schools out over the crests of waves, arching their terrifically frigid bodies in giddy resolve because they too can rise and fall like Mother water, that cyclic medium within which they can hope to paint their lives. But what are they called? I’ll never remember their name.

“Leaves perhaps,” added Bethany, “are the fish of the sky.”

Here the poet wakes with a jolt from that great reverie–Reflection–and he makes some indecipherable but undeniably derisory comment on the margins of our hopes, spilt ink on the manuscript of our daydreams. Better for us to have included our last line in a footnote.

But I redeemed myself on the train home. Again finding myself backwards-oriented, this time returning to some distant home (remember I’m a Romantic poet now), I saw the mountains. We forget them when we trudge the valley. Un gran sierra nevada said the forgotten warrior between campaigns. The violence remains, we can’t forget it: sufferings, slaughters, from Mendocino through Madera. But so does the poetry. We name them together. Something we still need to be redeemed of.

There was a man across the aisle from me. He had the word “fuck” tattooed in cursive on his cheek. “How’s it going, bro?” he asked.

“I’m just looking at the mountains,” I said.

For three long breaths we stared out the window together at the mountains. White. Sunlit. Imposing sentinels but witnesses of all lightness.

The train hurtled on.