I never liked the happy Christmas songs

It snowed on the end of town I work in Thursday night, so when I got over there Friday morning, the roads were wet and there was a very thin layer of snow still on the grass and parking lot. It’s now warmed up into the 50s-60s, so my tiny fleeting glimpse of winter didn’t last. But for a brief moment Friday morning, it looked and felt like winter.

I found a coffeehouse on my way to work recently, and I stopped there Friday. It’s in an outdoor mall, and outdoor malls where I live are now trying to create a “small town/downtown” aesthetic. Because it’s dark out when I go to work (I am the earliest of early birds), I’ve only ever been there before sunrise. The Christmas lights are on now, and when you drive up at 6:30 in the morning on dark, snowy morning, it actually feels somewhat warm and inviting. I’m not usually one for getting excited about Christmas lights or snow, but for a moment this morning, I could sort of understand the appeal.

The other day I was talking to my husband about things he and I don’t really understand, and I said that it comes down to the fact that neither he nor I need or like rituals. That’s why we’re not big on holiday traditions, or funerals, or going to church. Rituals are generally important and every human culture has rituals associated with it, so we’re the outliers on this one. That’s why it surprises me when I like something I normally disdain, like the Christmas lights around the coffeehouse at 6:45 in the morning.

When I got to work Friday, I decided to put on my seasonal music playlist. It’s not Christmas music in the pop culture sense, since I can’t stand most Christmas music. Rather, it’s a playlist of chorale pieces that are Christmas or winter-themed that I used to sing long ago – I was in a youth chorus from the age of 9 until I graduated high school at 18. It was one of the few parts of my childhood that wasn’t completely terrible.

One of them is John Rutter’s Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind. The lyrics are Shakespeare, from As You Like It:

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,

Thou art not so unkind

As man’s ingratitude;

Thy tooth is not so keen,

Because thou art not seen,

Although thy breath be rude.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:

Then, heigh-ho, the holly!

This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,

That dost not bite so nigh

As benefits forgot:

Though thou the waters warp,

Thy sting is not so sharp

As friend remembered not.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:

Then, heigh-ho, the holly!

This life is most jolly.

A bit depressing, no? “This life is most jolly” in this context is Shakespearean sarcasm. Oddly enough, the play it’s in is a comedy.

Coventry Carol is another one on my playlist. This one came back onto my radar after the move Byzantium came out a few years ago, as it features heavily in that film. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.) Coventry Carol is from something called a mystery play, which was a medieval play that told bible stories. It’s about the Massacre of the Innocents, which is in the Gospel of Matthew – it’s the part where Herod, after hearing that he will be overthrown, orders the death of all young male children. This song is a song of mourning.

I realize now how much of the music we sang in choir when I was younger was fairly dark – not just the Christmas stuff, but some of the spring/Easter stuff as well. I don’t remember how I processed it, but I assume it left some sort of lasting impact on my brain, and may in part explain why I’m drawn to darker themes in literature and art as an adult.

Maybe that’s why I’m not the holly jolly Christmas lights type. From the age of nine, I was learning songs like the two above, or French carols about dying orphans, or music that generally equated winter with bleakness and death rather than celebration and rebirth. Not that those happy celebration songs weren’t in there sometimes, but for a variety of reasons, my young mind mapped the bleakness and skipped over the celebration. I never liked singing the happy songs.

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