Cyprus Mail
Guest ColumnistOpinion

Ploughboys, baby Jesus, sex: the true meaning of Christmas carols

By Andrew Gant

I’m just listening to Jingle Bells. In Oxford Street. In Chinese. English Christmas songs and carols turn up in some surprising places.

They come from some surprising places, too – certainly, not all of them began life with their seasonal associations attached. Some were born to Christmas, some have achieved Christmas, and some have had Christmas thrust upon them.

You will have found yourself singing a song whose original words were about a dead cow and a delinquent ploughboy. The song was heard in a pub in Forest Green, Surrey, in the leafy commuter-belt fringes of London, by the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, sung to him by an old man called Mr Garman. Vaughan Williams found a use for the tune a few years later when he was given the job of music editor of the English Hymnal. He wanted to include a poem by an American bishop called Phillips Brooks but didn’t know (or didn’t like) the tune that Brooks’ own church organist had written for this text back in Philadelphia. So Vaughan Williams helped himself to Garman’s folk song. The result: O Little Town of Bethlehem.

That’s not the only transatlantic immigrant into the English carol tradition.

We Three Kings is American. So is Away in a Manger, which was first published in the journal of the Universalist movement in Boston, Massachusetts. The editors confidently informed their readers that the poem was by Martin Luther.

It isn’t, they made that up. They claimed they were celebrating the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth. They weren’t, they made that up, too (or, at least, got the date wrong).

O Little Town of Bethlehem and Away in a Manger are both sung today to different tunes on either side of the Atlantic.

Many of Britain’s best-known carol texts have had many musical partners over the years. Different tunes sometimes represent differences between one denomination and another, or from one village to the next. Sometimes a carol would be sung to one tune in church and to a different tune in the pub afterwards.

It’s all a gloriously eccentric English muddle. For example, here’s a list of names: Old Foster, Tom’s Boy, Old Beer, Morchard Bishop, Sweet Chiming Bells, Cambridge New, Fern Bank, Comfort, Hail! Chime on. Names of what? Ales? Cricket teams? Characters in Harry Potter? Actually, they’re tunes. All have been sung, at various times and in various places, to While Shepherds Watched. There are many others (including Cranbrook, better known as On Ilkla Moor Baht ’at). Some are deeply mysterious and profoundly moving, such as the elegiac Shropshire Funeral Hymn.

Often, tunes turn up in different parts of the country in slightly different versions.

London gives us a good example.

The composer John Stainer once heard God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen raggedly sung on the streets of the capital by a tattered band of Dickensian urchins. A little later, the folklorist Cecil Sharp collected the same tune in Cambridge.

The same but different: Stainer’s tune has a different first note from Sharp’s. Somebody, once upon a time, travelled those 50 miles singing carols and got that bit wrong, or misremembered it, or changed it. That’s how an oral tradition works. There is no “correct” version. Even today, hymn books and carol collections don’t agree on the exact words of Away in a Manger or the precise rhythm of Angels From the Realms of Glory.

This ability to absorb influences from everywhere and nowhere produces memorable, and often rather odd, results. Why are there three ships and two passengers? The opening verse of The Holly and the Ivy is a fertility song about the promise of new life in the depths of winter. There are lots of holly and ivy songs but they’re not about Christmas, they’re about sex.

This partly explains why, for most of its history, the English carol has been an outdoor creature, kept tied up in the churchyard, not allowed to show its muddy face in church. Good King Wenceslas used to look in, not out. For most of the 18th century only one carol was permitted in worship, Tate and Brady’s While Shepherds Watched. Hymns such as O Come, All Ye Faithful weren’t granted access until the first half of the 19th century. Even long after that, the idea of singing secular things such as “wassail” songs cheek-by-jowl with holy writ would have been deeply shocking.

So next time you clamber to your feet from some buttock-numbing pew or cheap plastic chair to hear once again those familiar old tunes banged out on a wheezy organ or cracked school piano, remember just how English this most English of traditions actually is: not very. Ding Dong Merrily on High began life in a French Renaissance dancing manual: (“pied gauche largy, pied droit approché, empoigner la femme par le saux du corps, l’eslevant en l’air”, which means “put your left foot out, put your right foot in, pick her up by the waist and twirl her around a bit”).

The tune of Good King Wenceslas was first published in Finland (to completely different words, about priests and virgins, mostly). Remember Bishop Brooks, finding peace from the horrors of the Civil War in the Holy Land, at the birthplace of Christ, where the silent stars go by. Remember the dead cow and the naughty ploughboy, carried off to hell by a genie in a puff of blue smoke – all very festive. Remember Garman of Forest Green, Surrey.

And what about Jingle Bells? That one’s American, too, composed by a man who ran away to sea in a whaling ship aged 14, lost everything in the gold rush of 1849 and was the uncle of the founder of the J P Morgan banking house (more than one cowboy in that family, then).

A “carol” used to be just a party song about love, keeping warm or having a good time. Shakespeare uses the word that way. Jingle Bells can surely claim its place in that tradition.

This wonderful, rich musical pudding gives us a unique insight into what makes us who we are. Even more important, it gives us lots of great tunes.

Happy Christmas.

Andrew Gant is a musician, composer and academic. He is the author of Christmas Carols (£9.99) and O Sing Unto the Lord (£20), both published by Profile Books

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