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Noel

December 11, 2012

Most people have a favorite holiday song or Christmas carol, maybe two or three. My answer to the question of which is my favorite changes every few years depending on the memories associated with it. This year, I’m joining in a blog chain talking about favorite holiday music. Harriet and Hugh have already written their posts, so I’m joining in as the first writer in the chain for whom music is less of a professional interest and more of an avocation. Both of them talked about memories, although Hugh surprised me by discussing a secular song.

Harriet at spynotes
Hugh at Permanent qui vive
Jeanne at Necromancy never pays
Cranky at It’s My Blog!
Dr. Geek at Dr. Geek’s Laboratory
Lemming at Lemming’s Progress
Readersguide at Reader’s Guide to…
Freshhell at Life in Scribbletown
edj3 at kitties kitties kitties
My Kids’ Mom at Pook and Bug
joyhowie at The Crooked Line
Magpie at Magpie Musing
Dave at The Ideal Dave
and back to Harriet at spynotes

Memories build up on holiday songs each time we hear one, and, for me, each new memory adds to the sentimental attachment. In the past few years, though, trouble with auditory discrimination—being able to filter out what one wants to hear from background noise—is making me grinchy about holiday music. I just went to a holiday lunch party where I sat across the table from a soft-spoken person near the speakers that were playing music, and the conversation suffered from the fact that I couldn’t ask him to repeat every single sentence that came out of his mouth. So I guessed. Not being able to hear is irritating; my own family members get impatient when I ask them to repeat what they’ve said or turn up the volume on the TV, and people in public places have even less patience. So lately I tend to prefer a song with a story or a carol that has something unusual about it, as in this poem by Anne Porter:

Noel

When snow is shaken
From the balsam trees
And they’re cut down
And brought into our houses

When clustered sparks
Of many-colored fire
Appear at night
In ordinary windows

We hear and sing
The customary carols

They bring us ragged miracles
And hay and candles
And flowering weeds of poetry
That are loved all the more
Because they are so common

But there are carols
That carry phrases
Of the haunting music
Of the other world
A music wild and dangerous
As a prophet’s message

Or the fresh truth of children
Who though they come to us
From our own bodies
Are altogether new
With their small limbs
And birdlike voices

They look at us
With their clear eyes
And ask the piercing questions
God alone can answer.

The “haunting” carols and the ones that tell a story are easier to hear because they’re not just background; for anyone, they take some real listening.

My current favorite of the songs that tell a story is one with accumulated meaning in my family over the past few years.  Every time I hear it, I smile; it’s Baby, It’s Cold Outside. The first time I noticed it was in the movie Elf; I thought the scene where Buddy started to join in when Jovie was singing it was fun, and it made me listen to the words. Then my kids started singing it together, back when Walker was so young he was singing the higher “mouse” part, and they began calling it “the date rape song.” They played around with switching the “mouse” and “wolf” parts for a couple of years until they became so known for it among their friends that their “Princess Tutu Abridged” group asked them to sing it for the holiday special. (Here is that version; they had some trouble hearing each other and the background music towards the end, but you can hear them having fun with it.)  The other version we think is wonderful is the one where two guys who are in love with each other sing it together on Glee. This year Walker sang the wolf part at the public library as part of the local “Christmas walk” with his girlfriend as the mouse; the song continues to go through permutations and collect new associations.

Hearing the lush harmonies of Baby, It’s Cold Outside gives me a smaller, more personal kind of satisfaction than something like the thrill of hearing a full choir singing the triumphant ending of Handel’s Messiah. As Mark Doty describes some of his experience of listening to a local performance:

Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire? Everything,
the choir insists,

might flame;
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
quickened, now,

by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
Still time to change.

This year, what seems most important to me in the process of discovering a favorite is the performance of it, the time when people are listening most attentively. The associations–another year, another performance–are continually laid over the previous ones, making a patina that enhances this year’s performance; something has always changed since the last time, whether we meant it to or not.

More years, more meaning. What is your current favorite holiday song?

37 Comments leave one →
  1. John permalink
    December 11, 2012 1:32 pm

    There’s nothing better than a true solstice carol from the CSCS: http://masi.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/cthulhu-hymnal/god-rest-ye-scary-great-old-ones.html

    • December 11, 2012 8:48 pm

      “oh tidings of madness and woe, madness and woe”!

  2. December 11, 2012 1:51 pm

    You’ll find out soon enough!

  3. December 11, 2012 3:05 pm

    Wow — the kids sound great!

    • December 11, 2012 9:18 pm

      I miss their sibling duets. Eleanor gets home the night of December 21, so if the world doesn’t end, there will be singing and rejoicing here.

      • December 12, 2012 7:21 pm

        They really sound good. Nothing like the warbling that goes on around here –

  4. December 11, 2012 4:17 pm

    I think my favorite church-y one is still O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – just so haunting.
    For fun though, I love Sleigh Ride. Always makes me smile!
    And, is it just me, or have the Baby, It’s Cold Outside covers proliferated astonishingly this year? I swear it’s on the radio at least hourly in a different version.

    • December 11, 2012 9:20 pm

      I haven’t heard the proliferation, since I rarely listen to the radio. That’s interesting, though–I think we’ve picked up on a cultural fascination with the roles in that song.

  5. December 11, 2012 4:57 pm

    I love “O Holy Night,” especially the second verse, especially Aaron Neville’s rendition. For me, there is always a transcendent moment when I hear the lines, “A thrill of hope…the weary world rejoices,” It makes me think of how much this world’s people carry on their shoulders every day…and how much they need hope. “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease.” What we all long for, right?

    On a less exalted note: the Glee version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is simply delicious. Also on that album is that delightful song from Mame, “We Need a Little Christmas,” which I also adore.

  6. December 11, 2012 7:52 pm

    I just bought Straight No Chaser’s Christmas album from 2008 and love their version of The 12 Days of Christmas.

    • December 11, 2012 9:24 pm

      We used to use that song to put Walker to sleep. He liked repetitive songs with lots of verses, so we made up extra ones. I think at one point we could sing 64 verses of “Froggy Went A-Courtin”

      • December 12, 2012 6:24 am

        This version would have kept him awake :D

  7. December 11, 2012 8:17 pm

    I’ve somehow managed to miss oversaturation this year, so right now I still love most Christmas music.

    • December 11, 2012 9:28 pm

      Does this mean there’s a point every year when you love it, and then a point when you’ve lost patience?

  8. Carol Schumacher permalink
    December 11, 2012 8:38 pm

    Do you hear what I hear?

    • December 11, 2012 9:31 pm

      a song, a song…(a star, a star…we just watched the episode of Dr. Who where the spider alien enters the atmosphere in his star-shaped web thing and the humans think it’s a Christmas star).

  9. December 11, 2012 9:22 pm

    I’ve been listening to Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas Songs on Spotify today and have been surprised by how much I’m enjoying it. I like some of his work very much == Come on, Feel the Illinoise is one of my favorite albums — but I wasn’t sure if I’d like his take on this. But do. I need to listen to more of it before I say more. Also, in response to NWK above, I used to love O Holy Night, until I had to sing it as a solo one Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. It was the single most terrifying moment of my erstwhile performing career. And now, I am afraid to say, I don’t like it quite as much.

    • December 11, 2012 9:41 pm

      It seems like it takes only one bad performance to make people love O Holy Night less. One can recover from hearing someone not quite make the high note, but it takes a while. While we’re still on Glee references, I thought Lea Michele did a nice job with O Holy Night.

    • drgeek permalink
      December 12, 2012 5:19 pm

      I sang for a couple years with a Church choir for Christmas in my late teens. The parish Choir Director for the first year or two had a lovely tenor voice (he was replaced by an equally talented soprano)… and he used to do “O Holy Night” as a solo at Mass. It’s a version of the song that lives in my memory… and one that most others I hear can’t match.
      By the same token, it’s a memory that other recordings and performances can’t touch, and it is not diminished by them.

      • December 12, 2012 7:12 pm

        That’s lovely. I have a memory of Once In Royal David’s City that is similarly lovely, to the extent that subsequent performances can’t tarnish it.

  10. December 12, 2012 9:03 am

    I love “Baby It’s Cold Outside” too, although I have to agree with your kids’ assessment of its creepy undertones. She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) did a version on the Christmas album they released last year where she sings the wolf part. It’s a fun take.

    • December 12, 2012 7:22 pm

      That’s one of the things I love most about the song–the way different people (and muppets, apparently) switch the mouse and wolf roles. I will have to look up the M. Ward version now.

  11. drgeek permalink
    December 12, 2012 5:12 pm

    Try as I might, I can’t quite dislike the “date rape song”. I think I must own four or five different versions of the song on different Christmas music albums or compilations. The best is literal reading is probably by Ray Charles & Betty Carter… the most humorous by the Asylum Street Spankers. One of the most unusual I’ve ever seen is this one:

    I wonder how the story meeting with the Muppet Show writing staff went for that one.

    • December 12, 2012 7:22 pm

      Oh, my! That is the version to top all others. Wonderful!

  12. magpiemusing permalink
    December 13, 2012 8:09 pm

    I love Miss Piggy with Nureyev. I’d seen it before, but not in a long time.

    I find that I like a lot of things, if they are done as a quirky instrumental.

    • December 14, 2012 8:16 am

      I find that I like a lot more songs when my friends send me quirky instrumental versions!

  13. December 18, 2012 12:11 pm

    I think I had so many different “Yes!” responses to this that I completely forgot to comment at all. I love that “Still time./Still time to change.” After all, that is the whole of the Advent message: change. Get back on the side of Love. Beautiful.

    • December 19, 2012 8:15 am

      “Still time to change” is the last line of a much longer poem; I quoted only the last section. It has even more weight after all that comes before.

  14. jaylyn permalink
    December 20, 2012 9:35 am

    My current fave, maybe because I get to sing it 8-10 times a season with the Boston Pops, is the Pops’ version of The 12 Days of Christmas, each day to a different classical or popular theme/song. It’s hilarious, a good send up on an old standard, and available for download at bostonpops.org. Give it a listen…

    • December 20, 2012 11:33 am

      Okay. You and edj3 will talk me into listening to two different versions of my least favorite holiday song this year.

Trackbacks

  1. Holiday music blog chain « spynotes
  2. Have yourself a merry little Christmas « Readers Guide to . . .
  3. Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time « Life in Scribbletown
  4. Plea. Gift. Sign. | The Crooked Line
  5. Where the love light gleams « spynotes

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