The Christmas Story in Song

To do a 2020 Christmas show or not to do a 2020 Christmas show – that is the question! And, given the pandemic, it’s a hard question. But we’re doing one (although we’re not including any songs that would encourage gathering in large groups :-)). Usually I put together a primarily British voices/tradition Christmas show heavy on uncommon carols, wassails and songs of joy. This year, I focused on presenting the Christmas story in song, with familiar material in predominantly American iterations (although I still tried to include a couple of songs/song variants/artists I’ve never included before).

We start with the Christmas story in carols, beginning with the Annunciation and ending with the arrival of the Magi. Along the way Mary picks some cherries, Christ is born in Bethlehem, a star appears, Herod gets a surprise, the shepherds rejoice, the drummer boy(s) perform, and the Three Kings arrive.

Then we reprise the story, remember that for many people 2020 has been a very hard economic year and wrap up with Good King Wenceslas. Be like Wenceslas…

Some notes:

I’m fascinated by the way carols transitioned from liturgical Latin and/or pre-Christian traditions, so we have a number of macaronics (carols mixing the vernacular with Latin) plus ‘O The Holly She Bears a Berry’, one of the many pre-Christian/Christian mashups (“… the rising of the sun/the running of the deer/the playing of the merry organ/ sweet singing all in the choir…” – REALLY??). I think the earliest carol in the show dates to the 15th century.

You might notice that in ‘The Cherry Tree’ carol Jesus tells Joseph and Mary that he’s going to be born on the 6th of January. He is not mistaken. The 6th of January was ‘Old Christmas’ (predating the Julian calendar which means that this carol was written before 1752). Nowadays the 6th of January is when the three kings arrive (and the date to which you should be leaving your Christmas decorations up – just sayin’). Coincidence? I think not. If you want to know more about ‘Old Christmas’, just let me know.

The Christmas tradition of feeding the poor is a long-standing one. Although the tradition had dated back centuries, when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans (a seriously cheerless bunch) came to power with the Reformation in England in 1647 and banned the celebration of Christmas that tradition too was banned, resulting in some very hard times indeed (fortunately come the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, legislation enacted between 1642-60 was declared null and void, and both the religious and the secular elements of Christmas were once again celebrated freely (but the Puritans still have a lot to answer for)).

By the way: Did you know that approximately half of the 30 best-selling Christmas songs by ASCAP members in 2015 were written by Jewish composers? Jewish composers gave us Winter Wonderland, Do You Hear What I Hear?, Silver Bells, Sleigh Ride, and White Christmas, just to name a few. You won’t be hearing any of those in this show, but ‘Away In The Manger’ and ‘Joy To The World’ (if we get as far as that one) are both performed by the Klezmonauts in honor of Hanukkah (falling Dec 10 -18 this year).



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