The Great Gruesome Christmas Carols

I’m reposting some of my previous holiday posts, as part of my holiday tradition thing. Enjoy!

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

    Saturday Night Live this past weekend did a spoof game show where the three contestants were introduced to their future second wives. The first was currently a 15-year-old girl, the second was 5-years-old, and the third man was relieved when his future second wife was age-appropriate… until it turned out it wasn’t her but the fetus she’s carrying and so he was introduced to his future second wife via ultrasound photo.

    It was brilliant, funny, and uncomfortable in all the right ways.

    I only bring this up because Christmas – to Christians – is all about celebrating the birth of a baby who will grow up to die a horrible, prolonged, torturous death. Happy birthday, Baby Jesus!

  2. 2

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

    I’ve always loved We Three Kings. Even now, years after I gave up on all the Jesus stuff, that one is one of my favorites, morbid fourth verse and all. There’s just something mesmerizing about the tune.

  3. 3

    For Coventry Carol, you quote a verse you found as this:

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

    Fair enough, but I bet when it was first written, it ended with

    All children young to SLAY!

    All the stuff about Jesus being dead is supposed to be saved for Spring.
    The winter solstice season is all about the threat to kill all the little boys, just as happened in the myths of Moses and Gilgamesh, I believe.

  4. 6

    Perhaps not as gruesome, but still something that sends shivers down my spine: “Once in Royal David’s City”:

    And through all His wondrous childhood
    He would honor and obey,
    Love and watch the lowly maiden,
    In whose gentle arms He lay:
    Christian children all must be
    Mild, obedient, good as He.

    And after that a good Christian parent can, of course, not spare the rod.

  5. 7

    A classic from my youth, up there with “Jingle bells, batman smells”:

    We three kings of Orient are
    One in a taxi, one in a car
    One on a scooter tooting the hooter,
    Following yonder star…

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