The Great Gruesome Christmas Carols

Reposting this, as part of my holiday tradition.

christmas carols book
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.

bleeding crucified jesus
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.

slaughter of the innocents
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!

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

  1. 1

    I think the last two line in Coventry Carol should be;

    “His men of might, in his own sight
    young children now to slay”

    I had to learn this one for an 8th grade choir concert once. It’s
    a bear to sing, especially if you’re not really a singer.

  2. 2

    It’s not gruesome, per se, but I always get weirded out by

    ‘So let’s give thanks to the Lord above
    ‘Cause Santa Claus comes tonight.”

    er… thank you, my invisible friend, for sending me a different invisible friend? I mean… wha? … I cannot parse that as a reasonable sentiment. Is this the accommodation agreement for those who only want Christ in Christmas: thank Jesus for sending Santa?

  3. 3

    Then there’s the salutation carol from the C14 that has a verse:

    She answered womanly,
    “Whate’er my Lord commandeþ me
    I will obey truly.”
    “Ecce sum humillima
    Ancilla Domini;
    Secundum verbum tuum,”
    She said, “Fiat mihi.”

    Nice tune though.

  4. 5

    I love Pseudo-Christmas carol, the Lovecraft inspired Cthulhu based ones in particular. There is the “Carol to the Old Ones” that is awesome.

  5. 6

    Although it’s not a traditional Christmas carol, Handel’s “Messiah” oratorio is something that is often done as a community sing-along for the chorus portions.

    What I discovered online last year was the most visually interesting and non-religious setting of the “Messiah”:

    “George F. Handel – Messiah – Staged version [complete]”

    As I commented on Facebook about this production … “It’s presented as a stage play commenting on modern life — the “suffering servant” in a gray flannel suit with Handel’s music commenting on the drama.”

    The opening scene after the overture has a minister trying to find the strength he needs for a funeral for a man who has committed suicide after experiencing failure in his business dealings and his marriage.

    This is followed by the funeral (including outbursts from both the dead man’s brothers during the funeral), a flashback into what happened in the dead man’s life and his family, and the survivors figuring out how to pick up the pieces of their lives after this tragedy.

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