Archive for Thursday, December 18, 2008

Off-key singing won’t stop carols

December 18, 2008

There is so much to enjoy at Christmas! I enjoy everything about the holiday, well, that is, except for fruit cake and battling crowds at shopping areas. One of my favorites is the wonderful music of Christmas. I enjoy hearing the old carols whether they are sung by a choir or children at a Christmas program. You can’t listen to a Christmas carol and not be flooded with memories of past holiday seasons.

Yes, I attempt to sing along, but the results aren’t great. I simply can’t sing and I really believe that I’m partially tone deaf. I have even convinced a friend who is a musician that I am very, very challenged when it comes to singing. That, however, doesn’t stop me from enjoying listening to Christmas music.

The Christmas season is about the only time in the year when I can enjoy listening to the radio in my truck since a couple of stations only play Christmas songs. Most of today’s music and radio talk shows leave me cold, so I listen to the classical music station, which fades away after dark, and sports broadcasts. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas two local stations play nothing but holiday music and that really brightens my driving experience.

The word “carol” comes from Old English and Greek and generally means “to sing joyously.” This certainly applies to me … I sing joyously, but rather badly.

My favorite carol is “Silent Night” and there is a family connection. My grandfather was a Baptist minister and family legend has it that when my mother was born on Christmas eve, the service at the church next to the parsonage was under way and the congregation was singing “Silent Night.” This, according to family legend, was why my mother was named “Carol.”

“Silent Night,” like most of our popular carols, dates from the 19th century. The words were written on Christmas Eve, 1818, by Joseph Mohr, a parish priest. Franz Gruber put the words to music that same day and the carol was presented at Midnight Mass. It is fascinating that one of the world’s most famous and well-loved songs was written in just one day.

Most of the early carols were written to be part of holiday religious services. In the 1800s, Christmas was the biggest day of the year in much of the world. It was the only time for celebration and a day without work. It was the bright beacon in a life that is hard for modern Americans to imagine.

In the 1800s, much of our Christmas traditions were formed, and that resulted in some Christmas favorites that were religious in nature.

I was a bit surprised when I discovered that “Jingle Bells” is among the 25 most popular songs in history. While not actually a “carol,” it is a tune which has become a big part of Christmas. The song conjures up memories of a time that is well gone when horses were about the only source of transportation. The song remains popular even though modern Americans have never been in a “one-horse sleigh” racing through fields covered with a deep layer of snow. The song depicts a social event for young people who enjoyed fast horses and a chance to snuggle with a pretty young lady. It is also a comedy because the sleigh overturns.

A friend told me about being in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands on Christmas Eve and children were walking on the beach and singing “Jingle Bells” even though they probably had never seen snow.

The song was written by James Pierpont, who has been described as an outstanding musician and pastor or as a person who abandoned his family and was never very successful and was neither a fine musician nor a dedicated minister. Anyway, one version is that he wrote and performed the song in 1857 and first presented it at the Savannah, Ga., Unitarian Universalist Church, where he was organist.

Supposedly, he had been an Abolitionist minister in his native New England and left his family to take part in the California gold rush. He returned and after the death of his first wife moved to Savannah. There is a lot of controversy about exactly where he wrote the song. The people in Medford, Conn., say “Jingle Bells” was first written and performed at Simpson’s Tavern, and there is a historic marker at that site.

Probably one thing is certain, despite the immense popularity of “Jingle Bells,” Pierpont made little, if any, money for his work. He died in 1893, but his song has lived on telling the tale of a social time for youths in the 18th century.

With just a week to go, I plan on just humming to myself and enjoying the music of the season to its fullest.

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