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    Deck the Halls with Christmas Carol Ratings {J-Z}

    by Papa Redcloud

    Here is a full deck of Christmas carols rated by someone (admittedly yours truly), who obviously is himself somewhat shy of a full deck. There are, of course, many more carols, including very famous ones. The absence of a carol means that it has yet to be rated, not that it is unworthy. There may be omitted songs worthy of the highest ranking. Carols are ranked one to five stars. Brackets indicate a range: for example **(**) means that the carol rates 2 stars ordinarily, but can in certain versions or performances rank more highly.

    Jingle Bells. A tune that starts out with the same note repeated ad nauseum really isn't going anywhere. The whole thing, musically, is beyond trite. It is one of a set of secular winter songs that have somehow become affixed to Christmas. I wonder how many people who gleefully sing the bit they know of this opus can conjure up the image of a "one-horse open sleigh"? And the words they don't know are beyond ridiculous: "and there we got up-sot." Up-sot?! "Jingle Bells" inspired a song even worse: "Jingle Bell Rock." *

    Joseph est bien mariť. The echt-French NoŽl. Simple but engaging tune. 17th-century composer Charpentier was all over this one. After all the Mariolatry it is good to have a song headlining Joseph, the real hero of the story. The text combines Christian belief with sly winks about Joseph being the victim of sexual hijinks. Naughty Marie! ****

    Joy to the World. It's nothing but a D major scale! Yet, twaddling as it is, it is somehow joyous, in its down-sliding way. It should only be played if brass is available. The scrappy, repetitious chorus always reminds me that Gilbert and Sullivan did this kind of thing much better. *(*)

    NoŽl Nouvelet. The archetypal French carol. Everyone, even Americans, has heard this jolly, spritely tune countless times, yet most of us don't grasp what it is. In its common instrumental form it is subliminal, centuries-old muzak. If it has to be sung, let it be in French. There are many English words that have been set to the tune, for Christmas and elsewhen (eg. "Sing We Now of Christmas"), but none linger, or merit lingering. **(*)

    Nova, Nova. Mediaeval processional with pleasingly minimal musical interest. Macaronic carol: words a mixture of English and Latin. These are, of course, not uncommon. But these Latin words have palindromic wordplay! Unitarians deprecate mention of the Trinity, though a few others claim that "he came down from Trinity" is not theological but a reference to rustication from an Oxford college. ***

    O Come, All Ye Faithful. Indestructable carol with an ever-pleasing tune, cannot be over-exposed. A must for high-church processionals. As old as the hills, it comes with Latin words, which is a plus for scholars and those who don't care to know what they are singing about. Make sure venite sounds like "when-eat-eh." There are many great descants on offer. *****

    O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. This one is for before Christmas. Of course, that is when we are accustomed to singing all the Christmas carols. No one seems able to distinguish Advent from Christmas (except the Episcopal Church, which has Advent until 12:00 am Christmas and will not countenance a carol until everyone else is tired of them). A wonderful, dark, haunting, if familiar tune. An ancient hymn, with Latin words to entertain classicists and romantics. *****

    O Little Town of Bethlehem. Atmospheric, though sentimental lyrics about Bethlehem, that are probably about as accurate a description of the nocturnal atmosphere of the 4 BCE village as the ones describing the arrival of ships (see "I Saw Three Ships."). Bethlehem was probably a nasty cluster of hovels and nary an inn for the holy couple to be turned away from. I'll bet there was a noisy party going on. But the words effectively evoke a spiritual atmosphere. There are two tunes. The American one is solemn, if trite. The British sing a folk-tune that is nicer, but almost too sturdy and jolly. **(*)

    O Tannenbaum. "O Christmas Tree" to you. Musical pablum and, in either German or English, it is sentimental, even fawning. Praising trees is ordinarily bad enough-it goes to their heads-but is sinister when one considers what happens to trees that get used for Christmas decoration. *

    Once in Royal David's City. A children's carol, with lots of stuff about mild mothers. Who ever had a mild mother? Foursquare hymn-tune that can sound either pedestrian or aetherial, depending upon the arrangement. Over-exposed in Britain and the Commonwealth, neglected in the United States. *(**)

    Past Three O'Clock. Obscure, but not esoteric, old British carol. Ever-fresh and lilting tune. It is always good to imagine being up "past three o'clock," because then, disippated as one may be, one can claim credit a la Toby Belch for being up "betimes." And there is nothing so bracing as a "cold frosty morning." ****

    Personent Hodie. Otherwise known as the "Boy's Carol" or "On This Day Everywhere." So you may have to look it up in the index. Even the preferred Latin words come with variations. Charming and insistent olde tune that works well with a drone and lots of percussion. Holst messed things up in his now-standard arrangement by sticking in an introductory scale passage between verses so that no one quite knows when to come in. It's lots of fun singing "Ideo" at the end-it is the idiot's gloria. ****

    Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Another mediocre and over-done song about the secular Santa mythos. The story was created by a department store and now lives on as an vintage stop-motion animation TV special. The words apparently were meant to be a plea for tolerance, that all folks, no matter how Communist (Red), have gifts to offer society. Unfortunately, Rudolph is only accepted because Santa needed him in a desperate situation. If his nose was just red, and not bright, he might be still out of the reindeer games. And the TV show reveals Santa, the elves, and the reindeer as quintessential bigots. This one goes down in history. *

    Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. A revolting tune combined with an Orwellian Big Brother-cum-Santa scare text: Santa is watching you! "He sees you when you're sleeping, he sees when you're awake." It's not a gift or a promise to children, but a threat. The living Black Peter and John Calvin rolled into one. Children are encouraged to behave well, not because virtue is its own reward, but for big bribes. And what is Santa but a vindictive, unforgiving voyeur! Bad values, family or otherwise. That said, it must be conceded that Bill Evans and others have transformed it into a fine jazz standard. *(*)

    Somerset Wassail. This is one of the best wassail songs, leaving Gloucestershire in the dust. The sentiments are not so extortionate. There are images of poor travellers giving a fulsome blessing all round at the houses they visit: "And it's your wassail and it's our wassail." The tune is beautiful and lilting with a touch of pedestrian joyousness. *****

    Song of the Ass. Great galumphing little unaccompanied tune with a bracing hee-haw at the end. A bit of comedy at Christmas, a feast of fools speciality. I love calling the beast "Sir Asnes." Can be used as travelling music for Mary and Joseph in pageants. Has been harmonized and domesticated as "The Friendly Beasts," but that takes all the heart out of it. Best played on a medium pitch reed instrument or sung in a nasal voice. **(**)

    Stille Nacht. Simple German tune, beyond over-exposure, should be nauseating. Comes with its own origin legend ("you see the organ was broke, and . . ."). At its worst it conjures up the Vienna Choir Boys. On the other hand, it is a must Christmas-wise. It has to be played, even on an organ if that is all you've got, during the candle ceremony. Just turn out the lights and sing about "round young virgins" over and over. And if you can't remember that, just hum it in German. People will think you are a linguist. **(**)

    Sussex Mummer's Carol. Forget "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Pass even on the "Gloucestershire Wassail." If you wish to go from door to door, blessing households, pick this one. One of the most heart-warming of Christmas tunes and with really nice, non-threatening blessings. With the right descant this one can be ethereal. ****(*)

    This is the Truth Sent from Above. Not to be entirely confused with "The Truth from Above." Vaughan Williams used this in Fantasia on Christmas Carols. Nice haunting traditional tune, very effective without harmony. The first verse tells about the God of Love and tells us to do good. Unitarians and Universalists are with the program so far. Then follows much homely disquisition on original sin: Adam and Eve (those Xmas ragamuffins!) "ruined themselves, both you and me, and all of their posterity." Good thing Christ (Adam redux) came along, at least so the clerkes say. ***

    Twelve Days of Christmas. Overdone, annoying, and interminable counting song. The five golden rings do break the tedium a little and it is always a relief to get to the partridge in a pear tree, whatever that is. One wonders what Christmas would be like if we prolonged the gift-giving over 12 days. Rather like Hanukkah on steroids. *

    We Three Kings. Really for Epiphany, twelve days after Christmas. A dopey tune, and a text too often associated with rubber cigars, but the depressing and gruesome verse about myrrh redeems it all. This verse must be sung basso profundo (even if you are female) and as if you really mean it. It is such a downer that you cannot help laughing. (See also the Rahsaan Roland Kirk version, "We Free Kings.") Although over-exposed, an essential accompaniment to the Gospel of Matthew Christmas Eve reading that really should be reserved for January, when we need more bucking up. ****

    We Wish You a Merry Christmas. The most popular and the most insipid of wassail songs. The tune has no points of interest, and the words, except for the reference to "figgy pudding" leave little impression at all. There are many other wassails, most of them superior Christmas songs. Avoid this one at all cost. *

    What Child Is This? By all rights this should be highway robbery. Christmas abducts another great non-seasonal tune and all we have to sing during the interminable season of Trinity is "Take Me Out to the Ball-Game." But by a great miracle this tune is so great that it can lend its grace to Christmas while remaining the indefatigable "Greensleeves" the rest of the time. Everything done to "Greensleeves," only adds to, and does not diminish its legend. Then there is/are John Coltrane's wonderful version(s). Nobody remembers the original "Greensleeves" words. Ditch the Christmas lyrics as well and just relish the great music. ****(*)

    While Shepherds Watched. This has set the world's record for the most alternative tunes. The tunes in hymnals are to be shunned, even if they claim Handel as composer. The grandest, unfortunately, are fuguing tunes, best left to sacred harp afficianados, professionals, or low church choirs. My favorite tune is Sherburne. Glorious fugue! Great parody text, "While shepherds washed their socks," spices up even the meanest of tunes. Altogether, the carol is best not sung by amateurs unless desperate or drunk. **(**)

    *

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