Christmas carols – surprising ways we make, change and break them

There were carols for Easter, for New Year, and sometimes even for political events such as the Battle of Agincourt.  The first known Christmas carols can be traced as far back as 4th century Rome.  But could you hum to ’em?  

One legend says that Christmas carols were named after Carol Poles, a little English girl who supposedly went missing in London during the holiday season in the late 19th century. People supposedly searched for her by going door-to-door, singing to declare their good intentions. Nice story, not true.  Sorry.

“Carol” originally referred to dancing – pagan dancing, the best kind.  In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi introduced carols to his nativity plays and Christmas mass, kicking off the long history of Christmas carols.

Sadly, little research has been conducted on carol singing.  One of the few sociological studies of caroling found that the sources of songs are often misunderstood and that caroling is NOT  just about Christian beliefs. 

Christmas carols have been co-opted and adapted as long as there have been, well,  carols.

“Jingle Bells” was composed as a Thanksgiving song but was absorbed by Christmas as soon it became a “thing”. Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus, which is actually about Easter, got dragged into the Yuletide zone for the same reason.

Dashing through the bush

Some traditional English Christmas carols have been revised to fit the Australian context, notably “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.  The traditional objects, trees and birds are replaced by Australian examples:

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me: 12 parrots prattling, 11 numbats nagging, 10 lizards leaping, 9 wombats working, 8 dingoes digging, 7 possums playing, 6 brolgas dancing, 5 kangaroos, 4 koalas cuddling, 3 kookaburras laughing, 2 pink galahs, and an emu up a gum tree. (Other variants exist.)

The Australian “Aussie Jingle Bells” translates the idea of the original song to the summertime Christmas of the Southern hemisphere:

Dashing through the bush, in a rusty Holden ute,
Kicking up the dust, esky [thermal cooler-box] in the boot [trunk],
Kelpie [an Australian sheep herding dog breed] by my side, singing Christmas songs,
It’s Summer time and I am in my singlet [undershirt], shorts and thongs [sandals]

Oh! Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,
Christmas in Australia on a scorching summers day, Hey!
Jingle bells, jingle bells, Christmas time is beaut!,
Oh what fun it is to ride in a rusty Holden ute.

Other verses add further details about what happens when the Ute arrives at the family Christmas!

It may be your last

Now a holiday classic, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” wasn’t always the cheery tune we all know and love. In fact, Judy Garland found the initial draft of the song so depressing that she refused to sing it, instead insisting that songwriting duo Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane scratch some of the original lyrics.

Which line had Garland so upset? “Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last.” Yikes.

The lines “It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past” became “Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight”

All for tax reform

YouTube personality John Cozart didn’t change just one famous Christmas carol — he changed them all. Cozart’s “Progressive Christmas Carols” serve as a soundtrack for… a more modern holiday season. Check them out.

“He’s 50 different races, and all for tax reform. He’ll protect all your children – well as long as they’ve been born.”

The lyrics include a Progressive Santa who’s making a list of gluten free foods, Rudolf as an example of evolution, and a Grinch dealing with racism.

Soooo Gay

Hallmark’s Keepsake Sweater Ornament says, “Don we now our fun apparel.” Critics objected that the company “cleaned up” the language of the original.

Apparently, Hallmark stores thought the phrase “Don we now our gay apparel” might be just a little too political for its annual holiday ornament collection.

Hallmark initially responded to critics of this move by arguing that the words “gay apparel” were not necessarily authentic to begin with.   Being translations from a Gaelic original, they could be replaced by other, synonymous words. The company insisted that since “gay” today means something different from what it meant in the nineteenth century, that “could leave our intent open to misinterpretation.”

But “Deck the Halls” is not a translation of a Gaelic original.

When Oliphant wrote “don we now our gay apparel” he probably meant  ‘brightly colored, festive’ clothing. But gay had other meanings then too. As early as Chaucer’s day, gay could mean ‘lascivious’.  By the sixteenth century, it could refer to someone who was dissolute, wanton, flamboyant, or uninhibited. By the nineteenth century, gay could work as a euphemism for prostitution. None of these raunchy or negative nuances stopped Oliphant from using gay in “Deck the Halls.”

After an Internet uproar that saw the chain accused of 1. homophobia and 2. major Awkward Dad Factor, Hallmark issued an apology for swapping the lyrics.

Tis the season to disrupt racism!

Members of the group Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ)gathered Dec. 10 in Boston to sing their carols and give a political edge to the Christmas season.

“Oh, the Trump-ocalypse is frightful,” one song began, to the tune of “Let It Snow.” “All this violence more than spiteful/But when justice is dealt a blow/We’ll say ‘no,’ we’ll say ‘no,’ we’ll say ‘no!’”

One of the carols, “Silent Whites,” was originally performed two months ago by another Boston-area group, and goes as follows:

Silent Whites.

So much fright.

Don’t we/you know

Things ain’t right?

Check y/our privilege,

Save y/our tears.

Join the fight

And face y/our fears.

We/You will never be free…

Till all Black people are free.

Browsing tinder in my hometown

Buzzfeed rewrote Christmas carols for single people:

It’s that time of year when the world falls in love

every song you hear seems to say

hahahahahahaha

except you

Oh the feels right in the mistletoe!

So basically, Christmas carols have always been co-opted and changed.  What do you think?  Are Christmas carols ours to do with as we wish?  Should we be able to sing about yutes and mansplaining?  Or should they be left alone as a beloved reminder of childhood and (presumably) simpler times?

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.