Thursday, January 08, 2015

well I wish it could be a week and a half after Christmas every week and a half

This is a bit late, but, well, it's been Christmas and New Year and I've been a bit busy with various festive shenanigans, as I expect you have too. But I've had this clogging up my brain like a giant impacted cranial turd for the last couple of weeks, so I've got to get it out there. Wait 50 weeks and read it just before next Christmas, if you like.

Anyway: I trust we're at a point in human history where we don't need to have the tedious discussion prompted by questions like: well, you're an atheist, what are you doing celebrating Christmas? Because we all know about how 95% of the trappings of the festival: the date, the tree, the whole Santa Claus thing, et tediously cetera, are all a mish-mash of old traditions from a whole host of other places, most of them religions that your vanilla Christian would run a mile rather than admit to believing in. So let's all just chill out and have a mince pie. In any case, try making a principled stand and schlepping in to the office on Christmas Day to get some work done and see where that gets you.

[Apologies to whoever I nicked that little montage from, but I did it before Christmas and now I've forgotten where it was.]

No, my purpose here is to do with a particular aspect of Christmas: the music. I was inspired to think about it by this post on Greta Christina's blog, listing 10 Christmas carols acceptable to atheists. To be honest I tend to think that with Christmas carols you should in general get over yourself, accept that we've all mostly grown up in the same culture and that there will be some inevitable Goddery, and just like the ones you're naturally inclined to like, i.e. those that are most familiar from your childhood and have the best tunes. For me that means The Sussex Carol and O Come All Ye Faithful, cracking tunes that build in volume towards the end and incorporate a bit of scope for the organist to go all frenziedly In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida towards the end. If you've ever attended Christmas carol services, there's a reason they leave O Come All Ye Faithful to the end: it's because it's the best tune and really allows the congregation to get some air in the lungs and have a bit of a bellow.

O Come All Ye Faithful does illustrate a bit of a problem with certain carols, though: the jarring weirdness of the lyrics. The second verse contains probably the strangest Christmas lyric ever written: "Lo, he abhors not the virgin's womb". I mean, firstly, why bring wombs into it at all, but secondly, what's with the not abhorring bit? Why would he abhor it? I mean, it's probably a bit dark, but it's a womb. And don't even get me started on the Christian virginity fetish. It's not just O Come All Ye Faithful, though: Hark The Herald Angels Sing is at it as well with "Offspring of a virgin's womb", as is the slightly more obscure Cherry Tree Carol with "up spoke Lord Jesus from in his mother's womb".

And it's not just the relentless wombery: that second verse of O Come All Ye Faithful is a masterpiece of non-obvious scansion. Most people manage to muddle their way through "God of God; Light of Light" without there really being enough syllables to fit the tune, but come spectacularly unstuck two lines further on, possibly as a result of shell-shock after all the womb stuff, but more likely at having to smear "Very God; Begotten not created" across a tune that they were happily cramming "Come and adore him; Born the king of angels" into only a verse ago. The secret is to realise that despite the apparent lack of syllables what you actually have to do is put the "be" of "begotten" at the end of the first line, and then you find that the "gotten not created" flows OK afterwards.

This is actually only the second most impossible Christmas lyric in terms of fitting it into the tune, though, the hands-down winner being the last verse of We Three Kings, which requires you to fit "Heaven sings Alleluia; Alleluia the earth replies" into the space you'd previously fitted "Field and fountain, moor and mountain; Following yonder star" into. I think part of the problem here is a visual one - it just doesn't look as if there are enough syllables here, and so people tend to panic. Actually there are exactly the same number as in the earlier verse, thanks to "alleluia" having four, and if you just start, treat each syllable equally, fit them into the same pattern, and don't panic, you'll be fine, although you will find that, as for O Come All Ye Faithful, you will have to tack the first two syllables of the second "alleluia" on to the end of the first line.

We Three Kings has its share of lyrical weirdness as well - obviously there's that jolly verse about the myrrh, you know, the one that goes "Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying; Sealed in the stone-cold tomb". Yeah, and a Merry Christmas to you too. But go back to the very first line: "We three kings of orient are". What's with the shunting of the verb to the end? What are you, Yoda? Still, at least they lay off the wombs.

Secular and popular music has its share of lyrical oddities as well, not least Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Biological implausibility aside, it's a bizarre little story of whatever's the cervine equivalent of racism and/or ableism and just plain old bullying, and then one of those "hey, kid, you're all right" moments based on little more than a nod from the resident authority figure, Santa. To be fair the original book seems to make it clearer that the acceptance was based on Rudolph proving himself as a sleigh-pulling beacon, whereas in the song it sounds as if they perked up pretty much as soon as Santa nominated him. It's a bit weird either way, though.

Incidentally the "official" list of Santa's reindeer (the one that goes: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen) is from the 1823 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas. This is still knocking about in print, and indeed we had a copy out of the library over Christmas. Rudolph usually gets tacked on to the list as well these days, but he's a latecomer, as the book came out in 1939 and the song in 1949.

Finally, as I usually do at this time of year, I must just register a vote for Jethro Tull's Ring Out Solstice Bells as the atheist's Christmas pop song of choice, partly because it isn't really about Christmas at all. On the other hand, it does feature a gurning beardy snaggle-toothed bloke in tights standing on one leg playing the flute, which I think we can all agree is the true meaning of Christmas.

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