The Great Gruesome Christmas Carols

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!

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, 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 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!

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

  1. 1

    I have thought for some years that it would be fun to tour local churches in search of gruesome depictions of crucifictions, martyred saints, etc. Then publish a list of their addresses as places where children are regularly exposed to sadomasochistic images. Perhaps this song list should go along with it?

  2. 2

    most excellent. In a similar vein, I remember looking at the extra verses of songs whilst being forced to participate in school choir. Guthrie’s “This Land is your land” was an eye-opener. All I remember thinking, at the age of about 10 is “This is subversive! Cool!” 🙂

  3. 3

    @Greta – It is important to remember that Christianity is a death cult: the only significance that Christmas has is that Jesus was born to be horribly tortured and murdered. To your list, I would add the song “Herod” from Art Garfunkle’s “The Animals’ Christmas”, which purports to tell the Nativity story from the point of view of the animals. The song describes Herod’s slaughter of the innocents; amidst the bloodshed, jackals cackle about how Jesus will survive the death and destruction only to die later on. Really, really gruesome.

    @hexidecima #2 – Have you ever heard the Republican version of the song?

    This land is my land,
    This land ain’t your land.
    And if you don’t get off,
    I’ll blow your head off!
    I’ve got a shotgun
    And you ain’t got one.
    This land is private property.

  4. 4

    The Holy Well -not strictly speaking gruesome, but strange – some some snobbish kids won’t play with the young Jesus, and his mother Mary tells him to dip them deep in hell.

  5. 5

    “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.”

    Nonsense – that’s the reason for celebrating Eostre!

  6. 7

    Sir I wanna buy these shoes
    For my mama. please
    It’s Christmas eve and these shoes are just her size
    Could you hurry sir
    Daddy says there’s not much time
    You see,
    She’s been sick for quite a while And I
    know these shoes will make her smile And I
    Want her to look beautiful
    If mama meets Jesus tonight

    I knew I’d caught a glimpse of heaven’s love as he thanked me and ran out
    I knew that God had sent me that little boy to remind me what Christmas is all about

    Yep Christmas it’s all about killing Children’s mothers. Clearly this is the TRUE meaning of christmas indeed.

  7. 9

    There’s a Tchaikovsky piece that’s gloriously melodramatic, with the young Jesus being bullied in ominour foreshadowing.

    1. When Jesus Christ was yet a child,
    He had a garden small and wild,
    Wherein He cherished roses fair,
    And wove them into garlands there.

    2. Now once, as summer time drew nigh,
    There came a troop of children by,
    And seeing roses on the tree,
    With shouts they pluck’d them merrily.

    3. “Do you bind roses in your hair?”
    They cried, in scorn, to Jesus there.
    The Boy said humbly: “Take, I pray,
    All but the naked thorns away.”

    4. Then of the thorns they made a crown,
    And with rough fingers press’d it down,
    Till on his forehead fair and young,
    Red drops of blood, like roses sprung.

  8. 11

    This one reveals a particularly British Anglican attitude – from “All things Bright and Beautiful” …

    The rich man in his castle,
    The poor man at his gate,
    God made them high and lowly,
    And ordered their estate.

    where I grew up, there was even “High Church” (where all the toffs went) and “Low Church” (where all the proles went).

  9. 12

    I don’t normally correct people’s typos on the Internet, but the Coventry Carol is “all young children to SLAY”, not “stay”. Without that, it’s not gruesome at all!

  10. 13

    We three kings of Orient are
    One in a taxi, one in a car
    One on a scooter
    Bibbing his hooter
    Following yonder star.

    Lyrics taught to me by my father (British) circa 1955.

  11. 14

    I don’t know about gruesome, exactly, but to me “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” was always the creepiest, prematurely prurient, if-Highlights-was-Playboy waste of creative effort since the Song of Solomon. My mother thought it was cute until I asked her how she’d feel if I wrote a popular song about seeing her and my father having a cosplay make-out when I was four. (For the record, that did not happen.)

  12. 15

    I can’t hear the ‘we three kings’ song without thinking of Top Gaer’s version:

    We three blokes from BBC 2
    One colour gold car, one colour poo
    Oh brought the wrong cars,
    brought the right
    working heater,
    working lights
    westwood going,
    gasket maybe blowing
    what’s a piece of shit

  13. 17

    Not really all that rich, but the sixth verse of ‘The Seven Joys of Mary’?

    The next good joy that Mary had,
    It was the joy of six
    To see her own son Jesus Christ
    Upon the Crucifix.
    Upon the Crucifix, Good Lord,
    and blablablabla.

    Apparently often bowdlerized to ‘rise from the crucifix’, presumably because even Christians can spot that a mother likely wouldn’t count her son’s crucifixion as totally kicksy.

  14. 18

    Presumably the Corpus Christi Carol is not a Christmas carol but a… Corpus Christi carol. Corpus Christi is a holiday.

    Historically, before the word “carol” came to its modern meaning a Christmas song, it was a sung dance. There were early English carols for all sorts of holidays. Perhaps the most famous of of the non-Christmas carols is the Agincourt Carol, which commemorates the slaughter of the French by the outnumbered English forces of Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day (25 October) 1415CE. Further there are carols which aren’t specific to holidays at all, such as “The Best Song As It Seemeth Me” (“While I was young and had courage// I would play with groom and page,// but now I am fall into age,// timor mortis conturbat me.”) The woeful sinful nature of man and how we’re all gonna die were also topics of note for the genre.

    And yeah, re Coventry Carol, that word is “slay”, not “stay”. The whole song is hair-raising: it’s from a Christmas play, and it’s the musical number of the women of Bethlehem on learning of Herod’s orders to kill all the infants. You gotta admit, it’s got the Corpus Christi carol beat for sheer body count.

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