I’m doing a full court press in December to finish my new book, “Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why.” Deadline for going to the typesetter is January 2. So for most of December, I’ll be posting
retreads traditional holiday posts, as well as a few cat pictures. Enjoy!
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, 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:
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:
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 slightly 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!