Just to prove I’m not a complete Scrooge, here’s my ode to the holiday. Christmas carols are pretty much the only thing I like about this time of year, and there is no better choir than the King’s College of Cambridge. They’ve been celebrating their Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols every Christmas Eve since 1918 (it’s almost their 100th anniversary), and have broadcast it live on the BBC since 1954. It’s as much a concert as a worship service, practically.
Here are my favorites ranked in descending order. You can click on the images to hear the carols, but if you want to listen to them all, I don’t recommend my ranking sequence. Instead, click on my playlist at the bottom, which follows a rough order used in the King’s College services. Starting with #7 and ending with #3 is the right way to do it.
1. The First Noel. William Sandys (editor), 1833. My favorite carol has obscure origins. It probably originated in 15th-century France before being brought across the English channel by the troubadours. Sandys published it in his famous Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern. Its structure is unusual, a single phrase repeated twice followed by a refrain that varies on the phrase. It was used as an instrumental in the final scene of Doubt, which isn’t a Christmas film though none the less powerful for it. The King’s College Choir (click right) does a great job.
2. Good King Wenceslas. John Mason Neale, 1853. Social justice warrior of the tenth century: a Czech king who marches through miserable weather to feed a poor peasant, helping his page along the way who nearly dies from the cold. The story is based on the historical Saint Wenceslaus I (907–935), who was considered a martyr after his death. The lyrics were written in 1853 to the tune of an obscure 13th-century song. It’s considered a Christmas carol because the story takes place on the Feast of Stephen, the day after Christmas, but a great song that I listen to all year round. This choir version (click right) isn’t the King’s College, but it is the best.
3. O Come All Ye Faithful. John Francis Wade, 1751. Some say that Wade wrote the song himself, others that he stole from an anonymous Latin Hymn written by monks in the 13th century. The version we know comes from the Reverend Frederick Oakeley, who was ordained into the Church of England in 1828 and then converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. (Turning Roman seems to have been a thing for some of these carolists; see #5 for example.) I love the song to pieces, which surprises me, since the refrain, “O come let us adore him” should by rights sound oversentimental. It doesn’t. It’s one of the most moving in music history, and the King’s College choir nails it (click right).
4. The Seven Joys of Mary. William Sandys (editor), 1833. The earworm of Christmas carols, catchy as hell. It tells of Mary’s happiness at key moments in Jesus’ life: Jesus (1) being born, (2) curing the lame, (3) curing the blind, (4) reading the Torah in the Temple, (5) raising the dead, (6) dying on the crucifix, and (7) wearing the crown of heaven. (I’m not sure any mother would find joy in watching her son die on a crucifix, but there you have it in the sixth joy of Mary.) The tradition of Mary’s joys goes back to the 14th century, but the origin of the song is a mystery. The King’s College choir uses tenors in the first, second, and fourth joys, and baritones in the third and fifth, to great effect (click right).
5. See Amid the Winter Snow. Edward Caswall, 1858. An obscure gem that for whatever reason the King’s College Choir never seems to perform as part of their annual festival. But they’ve recorded it in studio (click right) which is the best version of I’ve heard. It’s a haunting hymn that Caswall wrote shortly after leaving the Church of England and becoming Roman Catholic, and I wonder if that has anything to do with the short shrift it’s given in Anglican circles. The theme of snow in a Bethlehem setting is amusing, and apparently has been justified as a metaphor of purity against the sins of the world.
6. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. William Sandys (editor), 1833. This one resonates from the mists of the 15th century, with the earliest known printed edition dating to 1760. Much has been written on why the comma comes after “merry”, and not “ye”, but less known it that the song has nothing whatsoever to do with being happy. The word “merry” means strong or mighty, as in “Merry Old England”, and the word “rest” means to keep. So the song literally means, “God keep you mighty, gentlemen,” in reference to lamplighters and other various men who were hired to patrol the streets during the holiday. Tidings of comfort in beating down rabble rousers!
7. Once in Royal David’s City. Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848. For almost 100 years now (since 1919), the King’s College choir has begun its annual service with this song as the processional hymn. The first verse is always sung solo by a boy between age 9-13, the second verse by the choir, with the congregation joining in after. The choir director chooses the soloist at the very last moment — literally seconds before the song begins — in order to prevent the poor boy from losing sleep the night before, or being a bundle of nerves all morning, from the prospect of being watched live by millions of viewers on the BBC. I chose the 2012 version (click right). The kid looks completely confident to me.
8. O Little Town of Bethlehem. Phillips Brooks, 1868. Brooks was a rather passionate American Episcopal priest who advocated against slavery during the Civil War. In 1865 he rode on horseback from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he participated in a five-hour long Christmas Eve celebration, and he was so inspired by the village of Bethlehem that he wrote the poem for his church three years later. His organist added music to it, and they never dreamed the song would be remembered by anyone, let alone have the lasting impact it did. It’s one of those tunes that’s incredibly compulsive in its modesty (click right).
9. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. Charles Wesley, 1739. It took four people after Wesley to tweak this song into the form we sing today, which is kind of a shame. Wesley’s original had some juicy elements, for example in referencing the Fall from Eden, with the serpent bruising the heel of humanity and Adam bruising its head. Wesley was cleverly suggesting that the serpent in a believer (sin) should be bruised (defeated) by Christ, the second Adam, who reinstates the believer as a beloved son of God. In any case, this is a famous carol for good reason, and the King’s College choir does it justice (click right).
10. Shepherds in the Field Abiding. George Ratcliffe Woodward, 1910. This works even better as an instrumental, so I use a pipe organ version; it sounds transcendent (click right). Woodward was an Anglican priest who often fit his songs to melodies from the Renaissance, and in this case landed a jewel. Funny as I’m writing this up, an old Peace Corps friend just posted on Facebook a folk session of this song that he did with his band at a night club, which also sounded really good. Many carols are torpedoed by creativity, but this one seems made for permutations.
If you want to hear the whole list, I’ve arranged them in a suitable order: 7->1->8->9->5->4->2->6->3.