Why Christmas carols are spine-chilling tales of apocalyptic horror

When visiting a primary school last week, I heard a glorious choir of angels, their heavenly voices soaring sweetly to the skies. I exaggerate of course – it was a class of Year 4 students practising for the Christmas carol concert. But what struck me most was the fact that they were singing an actual, old-school, Christmas hymn – one with the words ‘doth’ and ‘cherubim’ in it, and an appropriate sense of awe and wonder.

Scary Christmas CardThis cheered me immensely, because for the last few years  I’ve been mourning the death of the Proper Christmas Carol, as it lies in a grave garlanded with tinsel and glittery paperchains, marked ‘Soooo Last Century’. It seemed to me that the tradition of magnificent hymnal chanting was being replaced by a cheery, clappy nonsense. If I heard ‘The Calypso Carol’ (a teeth-scrapingly dreadful monstrosity of a song) once more, I would cancel Christmas Cromwell-style.

The traditional Christmas carol is a dark masterpiece in a minor key, with eerie chord progressions and doomladen imagery.  It’s not exclusively Victorian (many date back to medieval times) but shares the mid-nineteenth century ghostly sensibility of a Dickens novel, featuring fearful gentlemen and piteous infants. That sort of stuff can put you right off your Quality Street.

So having heard the choral delights of Minehead’s children,  it’s with a little hope that I present below the most macabre Christmas songs – or at the very least, the ones that make me personally shiver and cling a little tighter to my Christingle.

  • The Coventry Carol: Easily the spookiest, most morbid song for Christmas – a mother’s lament to her child, snatched by Herod in the Massacre of the Innocents.  Best heard sung by the pure voices of a white-frocked choir, swelling to fill the vaulted arches of ancient cathedrals.
  • In the Bleak Midwinter:  Christina Rossetti wasn’t known for her slapstick sense of humour, and Gustav Holst never wrote a joke book. All things considered, this was never going to be a bright and breezy singalong, but it’s darkly wonderful. There’s an alternative version – the purist’s version – by the appropriately named Harold Darke . Partly apocalyptic  (‘Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain; Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign’) and completely great.
  • God Rest Ye Merry,GentlemenA request from Badger, who sung this at his Graybridge-style public school as a young Tomkinson and was moved to his knee-socks by the power and the glory. There’s an interesting analysis of the carol here, which contrasts it with the early Christmas songs sung by medieval peasants – in comparison with the dreary, joyless songs of the time, ‘God Rest Ye’ was an upbeat number, sung with elation.
  • Carol of the Bells: Finally, one of my real favourites, based on an Ukranian folk chant – and never intended to be sung at Christmas, Trivial Pursuit- fiends! It was originally written about a swallow flying into the houses of ordinary folk and informing them of the fortune and prosperity they would receive that year.  Young girls would later go from house to house, singing the swallow’s song and sharing the joy. It has a high tingle-factor in this house, although sadly not when sung by Jessica Simpson with a synth-pop backing.

If I ran the world, there’ll be fewer Calypso Carols and more Victorian Christmas pomp, but I’m aware that this makes me sound like Gove the Grinch, grumbling over my dog-eared copy of ‘Our Island Story’. Many teachers would say that children today prefer the chirpy melodies of ‘Frosty the Snowman’ over ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ but I say, let’s give them a chance to be gloomy at Yule – just for the thrill of it.

And just because it’s nearly Christmas, let me end this with a true festive horror…

Image courtesy of Zazzle.co.uk

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