I am also much better. I got back to my weight training at the gym, and have the reward today of sore muscles. I also got back to choir, where I croaked my way through my solo in “Behold That Star.”
While this song sounds like a traditional spiritual, it was actually written by a man named Thomas Washington Talley sometime in the first half of the 20th century. He was a folklorist who collected African-American folksongs, and was apparently inspired to write his own.
I know that, once you listen to this sprightly tune, you will want to learn it. So here is the sheet music. It is designed so that individual singers can do the verses and everybody join in on the chorus, a great arrangement for parties. There is some fancy clapping (represented by a drum on the midi file) and it does require a bit of a sense of rhythm, but there aren’t a whole lot of notes and it’s perfect for singing around the fire while quaffing glogg, if it’s that kind of party.
Algaliarept has weighed in among the serious celebrators, but points out that she celebrates Yule rather than Christmas.
I think that all the winter festivals are essentially the same festival. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ because that’s a good thing to celebrate, but it happens in the dead of winter because you really need a party about then. I don’t know what the folks in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate in midwinter, but when it is dark and cloudy and snowy and the garden is bare and you have had to be indoors for a long time, you need a celebration.
Of course, the worst of winter is still to come. But you have New Year’s and Mardi Gras to look forward to, and then you are sunk into misery and Lent seems appropriate, and after that you have survived and can see spring on the way.
The real question is this: what do you sing at mixed-religion gatherings? Naturally, there are lots of secular winter-festival types of things that everyone can sing. Most of us can manage a few choruses of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” And possibly even “Who Can Retell?” which I learned in school. But if you are not observing Chanukah or Christmas, what will you suggest when it’s your turn in the singalong?
This has to be avoided. All over the web you will find sites offering pagan parodies of Christmas carols. These songs are traditional Christmas carols, with references to Jesus replaced by phrases like “The Holly King” or “the Lady and the Horned One.” This is not merely offensive — the songs are lame. You can’t expect the Christmas-observers to sit there politely while the works of Haydn and Beethoven and Praetorius are defaced in this way.
No, if we are going to sing Yule songs, they have to be good ones. I am sure that there are good new Yule songs around, and I hope you will direct me to some, but there are good choices in the holiday canon. “Deck the Halls” seems to me to be the original and best Yule carol. It is a Welsh tune, more for New Year’s than for Christmas. Traditionally, it was sung in a circle with a harpist in the middle. Each singer took it in turn to come up with a verse while the others joined in on the fa-la-las. If you couldn’t come up with a verse when it was your turn, you were out. The original words appear to have begun “Oer yw’r gwr sy’n methu caru,” but I think we can overlook that.
You could probably also sing the lovely “People Look East,” a fine Advent carol which doesn’t really commit itself. “Love” in this hymn is understood to mean God when we sing it in church, but it could be the Holly King or the Lady or some abstract idea of love. It has lots of nature imagery, too, which ought to suit it to the task. “The Holly and the Ivy” would be another good one, if the verses referring to Jesus are left out (as they often are nowadays). “Here We Come a Wassailing” and “Wassail, Wassail” should also do. These could also all be sung in schools (if the drinking bits are bowdlerized) and other situations in which people want to party without actually saying anything suggesting that Christmas is involved.
Otherwise, we will just have to sing “Frosty, the Snowman,” and suffer.