The Joy of Christmas Carols

Christmas puts me in a musical mood. For one, I’m somewhat contractually-obligated to put on a Christmas concert, which will consume most of my free time this week, so I’d better embrace the Christmas spirit—or else. But it’s not hard to get excited about the iconic music of the season.

(Also, Milo Yiannopoulos—the actual Milo—shared my post about his views on Romantic music, which helped make it the most trafficked post of the year so far. That was incredibly gracious of him to do, and it’s further boosted my excitement for playing and writing about music.)

As I wrote in an earlier blog post on hymnals, I’ve gradually taken over piano playing at my little Free Will Baptist church. We sing many of the traditional hymns that were written and popularized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as some earlier selections. Shape-note hymns are often hard to play, with big intervalic leaps in the melodies and surprisingly complex harmonies.

Take that melodic variety and harmonic complexity and multiply it by a factor of ten, and you’ve got Christmas carols.

That’s a bit of hyperbole, of course, but traditional carols are difficult to play. They’re rife with semitone motion, sixth and seventh (and octave) leaps, and secondary dominants. I’ve had to play B7 (B dominant seven, consisting of B, D#, F#, and A) in keys where it simply does not belong multiple times over the past seventy-two hours.

At least, it doesn’t belong in our watered-down music of today. Good luck hearing a tune from Hillsong with a secondary dominant V/iii (in the context of C major, that’s a B7 pointing to Em, the “iii” of the key of C), though you’ll get plenty of cloying D2 and G2 chords—not even respectable major nine chords, just the triad with the second interval added in!

The little private school where I teach had its middle school Christmas play this past weekend. The play featured a play-within-a-play—the characters in the play were staging a church Christmas pageant. The drama teacher asked me to play the carols on piano, rather than pipe in tracks, to give the pageant-in-a-play a more authentic, organic feel.

The first night of tech rehearsals was a mess (on my end; the kids were great), as I lacked a hymnal, and was attempting to pick out the tunes by ear, or from memory. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is surprisingly difficult to pick out by ear, as it leaps up and down the key of G major (with another one of those pesky secondary dominants, this time an E7, just a few measures in). The fourth note—the third beat of the first full measure—is an A#, a semitone that slips back up to the B that starts the song. It then hits a D over a C major chord—Hillsong would be right at home—and continues in that complicated vein for some time.

To be clear, I’m not complaining; I love this kind of melodic and harmonic complexity, and it gives me ideas for my songwriting (which has been somewhat dry of late). But for all of that complexity, the songs themselves are marvelously simple and tuneful.

I will never forget last Christmas Eve at the candlelight service at my parents’ church when the choir was singing carols. My little niece, then three-years old, said, “We sing this at my church,” and began belting out the tune (I believe it was “O Come, All Ye Faithful”). Sweet, simple beauty, telling the story of the Birth of Our Savior, in tones even a child can comprehend.

That’s the power of these carols—and of good music, generally. Carols are joyous announcements of Christ’s Birth, our attempt at replicating the song the heavenly host of angels sang that first Christmas night. What music that must have been, announcing the Birth of Christ!

The Bible tells us the lyrics, from Luke 2 (KJV):

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

If your faith is ever wavering, or if you’re ever in doubt about Christ’s unending Love for us, remember those lyrics from Luke 2:14—the song of angels.

15 thoughts on “The Joy of Christmas Carols

  1. Lately, my internet radio has been mostly on a British 40s station which is increasingly playing Christmas music from the 40s (and the 50s, I think they cheat a bit). My favorite so far is probably Sinatra singing a completely normal “O Come All Ye Faithful”. But almost every one is sung like they mean it. How refreshing it is.

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    • There is such a simple purity to Christmas carols. As part of the play I mentioned in the post, I had to play carols while an “angel choir” performed on-stage. During a break before the first performance, I asked the middle school students in the “choir” to run through the songs with me. Something about their sweet little voices singing carols in unison was so touching (a welcome change from the usual middle school banter).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] “The Joy of Christmas Carols” – This piece is a reflection on the sheer joy of playing and singing Christmas carols.  Like traditional hymns, carols possess wonderful staying power, and they stick with you powerfully.  I’ve often caught myself singing “Joy to the World” (more below) in the middle of July.  They also beautifully and simply tell the story of Christ. […]

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