The Great Gruesome Christmas Carols

Christmas carols

And now for something completely different.

I’m one of those freakish people who actually likes Christmas carols. Not the gloppy, cutesy, “Suzy Snowflake” modern variety so much (although I do have a soft spot for “Silver Bells”), but the soaring, haunting, gorgeous classic ones. “Angels We Have Heard On High,” “The Holly and the Ivy,” “The Angel Gabriel,” that sort of thing.

And one of the things I like about them is how totally freaky some of them are.

There’s this annual Christmas party I go to every year (although I had to miss it this year, damn and blast), at which the singing of Christmas carols and other seasonal and not- so- seasonal music is a centerpiece. A few years back, I went on the Internet and pulled together a lyric sheet, so we could actually sing all the songs all the way through instead of tapering off pathetically after the first verse.

And you know what I found? Some Christmas carols are truly gruesome. Startlingly gruesome. Freakishly and hilariously gruesome.

So I thought I should share with the rest of the class.

We start with a classic: the fourth verse of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”


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

I love that one. It rings out so lustily — especially when a room full of eggnog- tiddly heathens is belting it out.

Then we have this gem: two little lines from the 1865 “Greensleeves” parody rewrite, “What Child Is This”:


Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.

Well, it definitely reminds you of the reason for the season. You can’t deny that.

Then we have the lesser- known, but haunting and really quite lovely “Coventry Carol” (here’s the tune, in case you don’t know it). With this charming third verse:

Slaughter of the innocents

Herod the king in his raging,
Charged he hath this day,
His men of night, in his own sight,
All children young to stay.

The fourth verse is a charmer, too, although somewhat lacking in the vivid “dead children” imagery:

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and say,
For thy parting not say, nor sing,
By, by, lullay, lullay.

But the best — the very, very best, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords of gruesome Christmas carols — has got to be the “Corpus Christi Carol,” a.k.a. “Down In Yon Forest.” There are different versions of it, but the one I found when I was putting together the songbook goes like this:

Dead knights

Down in yon forest there stands a hall
(The bells of paradise I heard them ring)
It’s covered all over with purple and pall
(And I love my Lord Jesus above anything)

In that hall there stands a bed
It’s covered all over with scarlet so red

Under the bed there runs a flood
One half runs water, the other runs blood

On the bed there lies a knight
Whose wounds do drip down both by day and by night

By the bed there lies a hound
Who laps at the blood as it daily drips down

At the bed’s foot there grows a thorn
Which ever so blossomed since Jesus was born

(Here’s a nifty folk-Goth version of it by my friend Tim Walters and his occasional project Conjure Wife; here’s a YouTube video with a more conventional rendition, although for some reason it’s lacking the verse about the vampire dog.)

So Merry Christmas, everybody! And in the midst of this terrible, disrespectful, heathenistic War on Christmas, let’s all remember the reason for the season: a life of gathering gloom, flesh pierced through with nails and a spear, children slaughtered by a raging king, and — merriest of all — a half-blood, half-water river, blood dripping from a wounded knight, and a dog licking up the blood. Let me know if there’s any I’ve forgotten, or any I haven’t heard of yet. It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

The Great Gruesome Christmas Carols
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15 thoughts on “The Great Gruesome Christmas Carols

  1. 1

    Even though I’m an atheist and against the whole religion idea, one of my favorite things about the Christmas season are the carols.
    There is nothing like singing some of the classic carols/hymns with your family in a church lit with candles – a very beautiful sight and sound (especially if it’s one of those old churches that echos).
    It’s been a long time since I’ve done that, though.

  2. 2

    Look up Night of Silence/Silent Night. Absolutely gorgeous to listen to, and includes the line: “Fire of hope is our only warmth/weary its flames will be dying soon.” And a Happy New Year!

  3. 3

    The original lyrics of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” are quite miserabilist:
    Have yourself a merry little Christmas
    It may be your last
    Next year we may all be living in the past
    Have yourself a merry little Christmas
    Pop that champagne cork
    Next year we may all be living in New York
    No good times like the olden days
    Happy golden days of yore
    Faithful friends who were dear to us
    Will be near to us no more
    But at least we all will be together
    If the Lord allows
    From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow
    So have yourself a merry little Christmas now
    here’s a YouTube video with a more conventional rendition, although for some reason it’s lacking the verse about the vampire dog
    Probably because the Picardy third is so gruesome that vampire dogs would seem anticlimactic.

  4. vel

    First thanks Greta for remindign me of Suzy Snowflake. Always found that little cartoon creepy as heck. And of course, its on Youtube
    some of these carols’s lyrics remind me of the more interesting lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land” which always, not so strangely, get left out of patriotic song fests.
    “As I was walkin’ – I saw a sign there
    And that sign said – no tress passin’
    But on the other side …. it didn’t say nothin!
    Now that side was made for you and me!
    In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
    Near the relief office – I see my people
    And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
    If this land’s still made for you and me.”

  5. 5

    From somewhere in the recesses of my childhood memories I now hear my cousin singing:
    “This land’s not your land,
    This land is my land,
    I’ve got a shotgun,
    And you ain’t got one,
    If you don’t get off,
    I’ll blow your head off,
    This land is private property”
    Thanks, Vel!

  6. 7

    ooh, ooh, the Seven Joys of Mary.
    The next good joy our Mary had,
    It was the joy of six;
    To see her own son, Jesus Christ,
    upon the crucifix.

    There are so many. “I was born in a stall” – as baby Jesus asks “shall I mother?” about details of the Passion narrative. Verses like “With a spear both sharp and keen, they clave my heart in two; water and blood thereout ran”. Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day is similarly bloody; and Remember O Thou Man has lots of threats of hell and damnation.
    Tchaikovky’s Legend is another good one… a story of a child Jesus, a group of bullies, and a crown of roses, all full of spooky prefiguring. “Then of the thorns they made a crown, and with rough fingers pressed it down, till on his forehead fair and young: red drops of blood like roses sprung”
    And not so gruesome, but I really love Adam Lay Ybounden, for its subversive theology. To paraphrase: if Adam hadn’t taken the apple, then Mary wouldn’t have been Queen of Heaven. Hurray for the fall!
    The Cherry tree Carol,in which Joseph doubts Mary’s word on the whole angel thing, is rather fun.
    And then there’s the socialist “Masters in this Hall” with its rousing chorus of “God today hath poor folk rais-ed and cast a-down the proud”.
    Medieval peasant stuff is brilliant – it’s all folk tales and pagan allusions, from the days back when the bible was not even allowed to be translated into the common language. The Sans Day carols is all about sacred trees, for instance, and the Boar’s Head and several Wassails are about winter feasts. Carols were even occasionally banned as pagan.

  7. 8

    I’ve always noticed that verse in “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and said to myself, “WTF? This is supposed to be a song of celebration?”
    I have a slighty different love of Christmas carols, however. One of my favorite moments from last Christmas was standing in church with my family while singing “O Holy Night.” It’s a beautiful, moving song in its own right, but IMO the best part is where it says:
    Chains shall we break for
    the slave is our brother!

    Jesus was a Commie, I tell you! Joy to the World!

  8. 9

    “We Three Kings” has always been my favorite Christmas carols, for exactly that reason. Dude, Jesus was a Goth!
    The older I get, the more I realize just how crazy weird Christianity is. The most important event in Christian mythology is a human sacrifice. And the Muslims have a holiday this month, too, celebrating that time God was feeling extra mean and got Abraham to almost sacrifice his own son to him. But then God sent in the ram, so everything was cool! I never understood that story…why did anyone have to die? It was like God didn’t have a choice; once he decided to demand a sacrifice, he couldn’t change his mind, or something.
    Once you understand the weirdness of the mainstream religions, the Branch Davidians and all the rest totally make sense.

  9. 10

    I also have a lot of Christmas music (and religious music, generally) on my shelves. I can appreciate the sincerity of the composers’ intents, just not the object of them.
    That said, I’ve reached the point that if I hear “Silent Night” one more time (especially the “contemporary” versions) I may run amuck.
    Years ago, I began discovering Christmas music from the Renaissance and Medieval eras. Transcendent. “On Yoolis Night” is a good sampler. And right now, I’m listening to a CD of Celtic/Irish music. Lovely.

  10. 11

    Of course for Serious Christians Christmas is a lot less important than Easter – which I suspect is why a lot of the older Christmas songs are really About Easter, and how Christ’s birth is an important prequel to Christ’s Death And Resurrection.
    I find them a nice alternative to the super cheery modern stuff… but maybe that’s just me.
    And if you haven’t heard it you should totally get ahold of Scary Solstice by the HP Lovecraft History Society. It massively improves all Muzak experiences 🙂

  11. 13

    That knight one sounds very much as if it were one of the Adapted Pagan set. The Seven Joys, certainly.
    We Three Kings: yes, and? Surely the whole point of celebrating this as a Christian festival is the reason for the incarnation in the first place.

  12. 15

    Great creepy Christmas carol: “The Mistletoe Bough” – Edison Blue Amberol 23144. Though not often sung anymore, in the 19th century it was very well known and loved in the English speaking world, part of the sound of a true Victorian Christmas. It was recorded on cylinder by Edison’s Carol Singers in 1913 as part of a set of well loved Christmas Carols (and can be heard online at the Cylinder Digitization project at UCSB). No baby Jesus, Santa, or Reindeer, just a bride who accidentally entombs herself on her wedding day, suffocates, and lies moldering for decades until discovered by her husband, now an old man… They don’t write ’em like that anymore!

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