The Ultimate, Absolute, Exhaustive, Definitive List of Good Christmas Carols

December 25, 2016 at 9:30 am

A couple of weeks ago a friend shared this post on facebook (the author is brilliant!), and asked me to create my own list of Advent and Christmas music – so here it is: The Ultimate, Absolute, Exhaustive, Definitive List of Good Christmas Carols.

Personent Hodie: The first thing to note is that many of the best carols come from a collection of songs called Piae Cantiones.

In Dulci Jubilo: Also from Piae Cantiones, you might know this as “Good Christian Men Friends Rejoice.” That’s nice. But this arrangement by Michael Praetorius is absolutely METAL. Turn up your speakers. At the end, the organ is thunderous, and they are banging the drums like there’s no tomorrow.

Puer Natus in Bethlehem: Another one from Piae and Praetorius, this alternates an intricate Renaissance arrangement with kick-ass hymn singing and crazy instrumental descants. This is one is still in mainline protestant hymnals, but whenever your music director selects it, people complain. Trust me. I know.

Puer Nobis Nascitur: AKA Unto Us is Born a Son – yet another winner Piae. What was that you said? “Slew the little Childer?” Yes. The little childer were slewn. Sorry to ruin your Christmas, but it happened; it’s in the Bible.

Tempus Adest Floridum: AKA Good King Wenceslas. Yup, it’s Piae. No Christmas story here – it’s associated with Christmas because the first verse mentions “the feast of Stephen”, which is December 26. St. Stephen, by the way, was stoned to death. Merry Day-after-Christmas!

Gaudete: Did you really think I was done with Piae yet?

Divinum Mysterium: This hymn has earlier origins, but appears in Piae.

Hodie (Ralph Vaughan-Williams): this is the opening movement of a long, dull oratorio by RVW. The opening movement is great, and after that, you can take your Christmas nap. I love this movement because I imagine it sounds like Christmas morning in medieval Paris – the brass announce Christmas, and you begin to hear shouts of “Noel, noel”, and then one by own groups of drunken revelers come out of their houses and party in the streets. At 0:40 a big group of burly men being with “Hodie! Hodie Christus natus est!” At 1:22, the nobles come out dancing a drunken waltz. At 2:00 the church choirs are singing, but are interrupted at 2:13 by the rowdy congregation. At 2:30, it sounds like the Sharks and the Jets have joined the celebration. Whatever is going on, one thing is clear: everyone is drunk and everyone is partying.

Masters in this Hall: Well that was jolly good fun; now let’s make our way inside for a Christmas feast!

Wassail: Nothing says “Christmas time” like warm alcohol. As you might imagine, there are many carols devoted to this.

Boar’s Head Carol: Because you’re going to need a heavy meal to soak up all that alcohol. So … how about eating a severed boar’s head to celebrate the holidays?

King Jesus Hath a Garden: Ugh, too much heavy food. Good thing Jesus has a garden; maybe this will balance the meal out a bit.

Riu, Riu, Chiu: Wash that meal down with a little Spanish wine and a little Spanish dance …

Once in Royal David’s City: You know this one thanks to the Kings College Lessons & Carols. I include it here to point out that the last two verses take us away from the manger and to our own deaths. This, my friends, is what makes a good Christmas Carol – breaking away from “good old days” imagery and keeping it real.

I Wonder as I Wander: Two things make this carol great: 1) it gives the Christmas story a more humble setting, contemplating its supernatural elements; 2) the verse ends on the subdominant! How very bold and unexpected.

Psallite: This carol’s greatness comes from as combination of macaronic text and ridiculous rhyming: unigeniTO, ChrisTO, filliO, domiNO, pueriLO, praesepiO; EIN, klEIN, kindelEIN, krippelEIN, engelEIN, fEIN.

Coventry Carol: Most carols blissfully ignore this very important part of the Christmas story. The evil king Herod ordered all male babies in Bethlehem slaughtered in an effort to destroy the infant Jesus. This carol is a chilling lullaby which could have been sung by the mother of one of the victims.

‘Twas in the Moon at Wintertime: This carol adapts the traditional story into a Native American setting (the tune is an old French song); keeping it real by making it humble.

O Magnum Mysterium: I suppose this isn’t really a carol, since it’s not strophic, and requires a bit of training to sing. It’s the best setting of this ancient text out there, and a glorious piece of music, so I thought it would be the right way to end this post.

Merry Christmas! If you want to see a similar post,  check out my “A Little Advent Music” (some of the Advent carols are appropriate for Christmas as well.)


St. Nicolas Day!

December 6, 2016 at 11:30 am

Saint Nicolas? Oh, you mean SANTA CLAUS!


He’s the patron saint of materialism, putting chocolate in shoes, and giving cheap plastic toys to undeserving brats … right?

 St. Nicolas is one bad-ass saint; the legends about him range from the mildly interesting to the outrageous. The legend from which Santa Claus comes originated as Nicolas giving a poor man coins to pay for his daughters’ dowry, thus preventing them from being forced into prostitution; in order to be discreet, Nicolas tossed the purses through a window and into the man’s house at nighttime. It is also said that he punched the leader of the Arian heresy at the council of Nicaea (a meeting where the early Christians sought to clearly define their faith, resulting in the Nicene creed). Just your typical meeting of bishops, ending in a brawl, that’s all. And then, the greatest legend of them all … the pickled boys.


There’s a famine throughout the land – everyone is hungry. A desperate cook kills three boys, butchers them, and pickles their flesh. Nicolas shows up in town, and the people offer him some tasty meat. Nicolas, in a vision, realizes what is being served – he stops the feast immediately. He calls to the barrels containing the pickled boy flesh, and the meat comes back together and becomes three boys again. Naturally, the resurrected boys begin to sing the praises of God.

Benjamin Britten wrote a cantata based on the legends of Nicolas in 1948. He could have ignored  these impossible-to-believe legends and produced a work of religious piety. Instead, Britten sets the legends in a fun way which pokes fun at the exaggerated medieval stories and the difficulties of modern faith. The result is in a marvelous work which is both pious and frivolous, serious and fun, sincere and goofy.



Rest for the Weary

December 4, 2016 at 10:00 am

If there was a “composer with the most ridiculously long name contest,” the winner would probably be César-Auguste-Jean-Guillaume-Hubert Franck; second place would go to Louis James Alfred Lefébure-Wély, with third perhaps going to Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry.

Parry was among a handful of late Victorian musicians (like Elgar, Stanford, and later, Vaughan-Williams) who crafted a clearly identifiable “English” sound in a time when nationalism was the norm. It’s not too much of a stretch to argue that he was among those who ushered in England’s second musical golden age (which, perhaps, peaked with Britten?). Parry, like a good, twee, English gentleman, wrote a set of songs at the end of his life as a farewell to his friends and an epitaph for his life. They are all beautiful, and, as they are appropriate for use in church, they continue to be performed regularly. His setting of Thomas Campion‘s poem, “Never Weather-Beaten Sail” is fitting for the end of one’s life, but also particularly appropriate for the season of Advent.