Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes and We three kings of Orient are — to say nothing of if thou knowst it telling: Have you ever observed just how peculiar the grammar and syntax of Christmas carols can be? Or maybe that should run The songs of Christmas, noticed thou, / the strangeness filled with are — and how?
The oddest may be “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” whose phrasings are now so alien that even the first line gets regularly mangled — punctuated (and sung) as God rest ye, merry gentlemen, which suggests the gentlemen have made so merry that God needs to send them sleep, saving us from their wassailed warbling through the streets. The original meaning was “rest” in the sense of “keep,” requiring the comma in a different place: God rest ye merry, gentlemen — a prayer that God keep joy in the hearts of men. Not that this stops them from spiking the eggnog at the office party, but it might lessen the next day’s hangover.
Meanwhile, a later verse tells us that a blessed angel came and unto certain shepherds / brought tidings of the same. What same? How that in Bethlehem was born / the Son of God by name, of course, and there’s something wonderful about that line. It’s incompetent poetry, filler to make a rhyme of the most naive sort — by name, forsooth — and it’s really quite charming, in its way.
Even stranger is the moment when we’re told that the newborn babe was laid within a manger — the which his Mother Mary / did nothing take in scorn. You’d think that would create some which–witch confusion for modern singers, but not even children hesitate at the line. English doesn’t use the which as a construction much anymore. Still, when carolers sing it out, the phrase seems to come from the authentic heart of the language. It feels right, somehow. It feels old.
That feeling of antiquity, that power to appear traditional, remains a requirement of the music — even though Christmas carols are essentially a Victorian invention. Not that people didn’t sing seasonal songs before the nineteenth century: Ever since St. Augustine first came to Canterbury to convert the nation, England has been full of local hymns and carols, from “Christus Est Natus” to “The Cherry Tree Carol.” But the Victorians were the ones who systematized it all (especially Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, with their 1871 songbook Christmas Carols New and Old).The universal Christmas canon they established contained some genuinely older songs: “The First Nowell,” for instance, and the Wesleyan “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Much of what the Victorians did, however, was write new songs they tried to make sound old.
The result was often silly, to say the least: the pointless “thees” and “thous,” the pretentiously archaic syntax, the inversions and padding for rhyme. Nonetheless, every year, one or another of those carols catches me and hauls me in. The first Christmas song usually steals into town right after Thanksgiving, like the gentle plink that signals a cloudburst, and within days the deluge is inescapable: the office elevators and the street corners and the stores awash in holiday music. Beginning as an unwelcome reminder of just how fast Christmas is coming, the ceaseless tintinnabulation of those old familiar anthems quickly grows almost unbearable: as cloying as silver bells jangling endlessly in the middle distance.
I’ve never known a world without recorded Christmas carols. When I was young, my sisters and I would dig out our parents’ scratchy discs of Joan Baez trilling away at “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and Burl Ives growling out “The Friendly Beasts” and Peter, Paul, and Mary harmonizing a song whose name I can’t remember, but it was about a shivering boy who shares his only piece of bread with a gray-haired lady on Christmas Eve, and we used to play it over and over again on the hi-fi in the basement.
Ever since the voice of Enrico Caruso was first pressed on a scratchy, one- sided 78 rpm record for Mr. Edison’s new gramophone machine, nearly every musical performer has felt compelled to issue a Christmas album, and the sheer bulk of that music adds up to more than anyone could listen to in a thousand holidays. The big three of the season — Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole — remain perennial best sellers, while Elvis Presley’s holiday collections and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s recordings hold their own. But the music stores’ discount bins tumble together Mantovani and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tony Bennett and the Vienna Boys Choir, Paul Revere and the Raiders Sing the Season and The Amazing Zamfi r Plays Carols on His Pan Pipes — together with Christmas anthologies from Muzak, Motown, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Grand Ole Opry.
I once bought a version of a carol — I think it was supposed to be “Good King Wenceslas” — performed on bagpipes, just to hear what it sounded like. Not good, is the answer. By itself, it was enough to make all the Whos down in Whoville cheer that the Grinch stole their Christmas. But most of the traditional songs are traditional for a reason: they’re sturdy enough to stand up to almost anything the yuletide pits against them — Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, or a grade- school Christmas recital, or even my own adventures in shower singing. (I pride myself on knowing Christmas carols’ more rarely sung verses — the bit about thorn- infestation in “Joy to the World,” for instance — and one of the nice things about living now in the bigger spaces of South Dakota is that I can get all the way to those grimmer parts of holiday tunes without my wife knocking on the door to say the neighbors are complaining. Again.) Even when my sisters and I were children, the innumerable Christmas renditions would blend together until Don Ho’s ‘Mele Kalikimaka’ is the thing to say / on a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day sounded just like Nat King Cole’s ‘Buon Natale’ in Italy / means a Merry Christmas to you.
And yet, good or bad, distinct or indistinct, a carol snares me every year and tumbles me down — down into that Christmas world of time turned somehow less ephemeral: weightier, denser, and more real; a world where symbols are not just symbols anymore. One year it was a boy soprano singing “Once in Royal David’s City.” Another year, a melancholy country-western recording of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” rendered in a minor key. Another year, an a cappella version of “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow.”
I can find little similarity in the passing years’ triggers of Christmas, except perhaps that they usually come during the carols’ less- familiar second or third verses, at a line with some explicit Christian piety and heft. Mild, he lays his glory by, / Born that man no more may die, I heard in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” on the car radio as I drove home one Christmas season, and home was newly bathed in that old, familiar light. Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light from “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the carolers sang another year on the steps of a nursing home as I walked by, and it rose, and it rose, and it rose like a torrent. And down in the flood, I was washed away.
Every year, Christmas begins for me with the dance of words, and those words, often enough, arrive first in the lyrics of carols. Late one night when she was four — there in the Christmas season, the evening after her filing cabinet misadventure — I took my daughter in my arms and hummed for her the old, old songs. There is a world where shepherds still keep watch over their flocks by night.
There is a world where oxen still kneel at midnight in their straw. There is a world where Wenceslas still trudges through the winter snow. There is a world, I whispered in her sleepy hair. There is a world where still.
– Joseph Bottum is the author of The Christmas Plains, from which this is excerpted.