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More thoughts on Christmas carols

December 18, 2019

Christmas carols are on my mind just now as my choir, the Rose and Crown Singers, are gearing up for our annual carol concert in the Rose and Crown pub this Sunday. It struck me that we don’t actually understand many of the Christmas carol lyrics we sing, but we don’t even notice that we don’t understand them because the words are so familiar. Take, for example, ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen.’ It doesn’t mean (as I used to think) ‘Please God, let the merry gentlemen have a rest this Christmas’. Rest here means ‘keep’, and there should be a comma after ‘merry’. In other words, ‘May God allow you to carry on being merry, gents.’

Or ‘Away in a manger’. Hang on, away? What does that mean? I can only surmise it is short for ‘Far away’, but that wouldn’t have scanned.

As for ‘And i-oh i-oh i-oh’ (in ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’), well, your guess is as good as mine. Does it mean anything at all? Or is it just a piece of nonsense doggerel?

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  1. gwaualice permalink

    Just discovered this:
    which may solve your mystery!
    ‘Away in Manger’ was thought to be a German folksong attributed to Martin Luther; in that case a translation of the German lyric ‘Fern (Eng.- faraway) in einer Krippe’ would make sense but it was written by an American so maybe it’s an abbreviated, archaic form?

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    Thanks for this very seasonal post Brandon. Carols have also been on my mind as well as my choir, the Elysian Singers, gave their Christmas concert last night.

    I agree that the words of Christmas carols occupy a strange place in our lives. We know them so well, but never actually stop and think about them.

    I suspect that part of the reason that the words and music may not always sit comfortably together is because many of the carols took existing tunes – often secular, folk tunes or, in the case of Ding Dong Merrily, a renaissance dance – with the words being added later, in this case by George Ratcliffe Woodard, a Victorian anglican priest who took a third in Classics, and who enjoyed bee-keeping and bell-ringing amongst his hobbies (thank you Wikipedia).

    Lucy Worsley’s recent BBC 4 programme on the history of carols illustrated this very well; the original dance skips along, so it is appropriate that the words should be matchingly light-hearted. When the priest and people sing ‘i-o, i-o, i-o’ they are echoing the singing of the angels in the first verse, and I guess that these are simply archetypal, albeit nonsense, singing sounds. Perhaps there is a linguistic aspect here. If you actually watch someone sing (as I did last night with my choir) these are also the classic shapes made by your lips as you sing; try it. It’s how you might illustrate singing if you were drawing a cartoon choir.

    As for ‘Away in a Manger’, I always imagined that this was ‘away’ in the sense of ‘far from the noise and bustle of the world’ rather than ‘far away in a distant land’.

    Thinking about this further, it occurred to me that the carols that have the most poignant (!) effect are those where the words came first, being set subsequently by a sympathetic composer. Again, Lucy Worsley illustrated this well with ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ in which a, frankly, not terribly good Victorian poem is elevated to classic status by Harold Darke’s magical setting. In our own time, John Rutter is inseparable from Christmas. He writes many of his own words, which are often very well-turned, but which sometimes are not quite up to the excellence of his music. His best piece, (in my opinion) is ‘What Sweeter Music’ which is a fabulous setting of Robert Herrick’s already wonderful Metaphysical lyric.

    ‘What sweeter music can we bring
    Than a carol for to sing
    The birth of this our Heavenly King ?
    Awake the voice ! Awake the string !’

    One last thought. I recently read an article in the newspaper about one politically-correct local authority which had decided that whilst it was OK in principle for its school-children to sing carols, the words had to be changed so that any religious references were removed, so as not to offend children of other faiths. The example given was indeed ‘Away in a Manger’ in which ‘the little Lord Jesus’ became changed to ‘the baby boy Jesus’. It is extraordinary just how wrong this feels; the words are so deeply lodged in our minds that anything else is unthinkable. I was delighted to read that every parent in the school, of whatever faith, rose up in arms and refused to go along with this nonsense.

    Anyway, I enjoyed seeing ‘Back in time for Christmas’ a few days ago – always such an enjoyable and illuminating programme which brought back many nostalgic Christmas memories for me. As you say, as we get older, you appreciate Christmas more and just want to really enjoy it. So a very Happy Christmas to you and all the family Brandon.

  3. Hi Mark. A very interesting response. I wasn’t consciously aware of John Rutter but will look out for his music now. By the way, that Lucy Worsley documentary includes some shots of my own choir, the Rose and Crown Singers! The BBC came to the pub last year to film us.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours

  4. Mark Brafield permalink

    How can you sing in a choir at Christmas and not be aware of John Rutter ?! There are lots on You Tube, but the best are probably the Nativity Carol (composed when he was 17), the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol, the Candlelight Carol (which I was playing last night) and – the pick of the bunch – What Sweeter Music. And just go for Kings Cambridge every time. If you are looking for his larger-scale music, the Requiem is both accessible and deeply moving.

  5. John Dunn permalink

    Apologies for the late response, but a quick look in Chambers Dictionary reveals that io comes from the Greek and is an interjection used for invocation or to express joy, triumph or grief. Rev. G.R. Woodard may have been awarded only a third-class degree, but his classical education was not wasted.

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