My mother used to play the piano for the annual Christmas Day carol sing. She did it for decades before passing a couple of years ago. Now my son Saul plays guitar, along with his Uncle Dave, and we pretty much sing the same repertoire as we did in Mom's days.
With a few additions.
We do "The Twelve Days of Christmas," with a different singer for almost every numerical gift. We do "Good King Wenceslas" (over some protests), "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Silent Night" -- and all the standards copied by my brother from a musical score book, probably one my mother used to play from (often while complaining it was the wrong book). I find myself saying similar things these days.
But we added a few decidedly un-holiday touches this year. Notably: A sort-of group sing of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and -- I may have mentioned this before -- "The House of the Rising Sun."
So what is it about these songs that we (by which I really mean "I") like so much?
"Good King Wenceslas," to take an easy one, tells a story of a "just" king who gives alms to a peasant on the Feast of Stephen (Dec. 26). During the journey, his page -- the poor guy carrying the "alms"; food, etc. -- is about to expire in the cold, deep snow, but is told by the king to keep going by following in his footsteps. What a guy!
According to my internet source, this legend is based on a 10th century "just king," the Duke of Bohemia (that's the Czech Republic today). For this legend to catch on in medieval England tells you something about the quality of English kingship.
St. Stephen, who the poor peasant was feasting by walking around in the snow "seeking winter fuel" (which tells you something about being a peasant), was the first Christian martyr. He was stoned to death for teaching an unpopular gospel in Jerusalem. See how good songs are at teaching history?
We didn't sing -- lacking the score -- the marvelous tune "Baby it's cold outside," though there was a request for it. I have to quote my source, the Wikipedia, on this one: "Although popular during the Christmas season, it is strictly a romantic winter song such as Winter Wonderland or Marshmallow World."
Strictly? Like, who decides? A "romantic winter song": is that a recognized category?
"Baby" was written by Frank Loesser as a duet to perform with wife at a party and intended to show the guests it was time to go home. However, his wife, Lynn Garland, "considered it 'their song' and was furious " when Loesser sold it to the movies. I'm sure the wife had a valid point of view, spouses always do, but how could you not want to go public with a song this cleverly put together?
"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" is a song we could attempt to sing only because, one, Uncle Dave has played it for years, and, two, the invention of the Iphone enabled several carolers to discover the lyrics to all the verses (I've lost count). So aided, a few of us kept on belting out the words to this haunting, entirely un-Christmaslike ballad.
The song was written by Gordon Lightfoot, based on a maritime disaster on Lake Ontario, and reached number two on the hit parade after its release in the 70s.
First question: Was the doomed Great Lakes freighter really named after the Irish Revolutionary who was the most famous martyr of the Irish rebellion of 1798?
No, sorry to say, that was Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and no connection exists between the ship, the song, and this most romantic of doomed Irish revolutionaries. (I was hoping they just got the name wrong.) An Irish peer, Edward Fitzgerald was a follower of the ideas of Rousseau, whose rejections of rules, restrictions, and regimentation in the education of children has been summed up in the phrase "noble savage." Let each child find his own "nature." Don't be filling him up with your rules.
From personal liberation it was a short step to national liberation. Fitzgerald was inspired by the French Revolution, but the Rising of '98 was a disaster for the Irish independence movement, and Fitzgerald was mortally wounded during his arrest following the betrayal of the rebellion's leaders.
The pedestrian truth of the matter is that Edmund Fitzgerald was named after the then-current president of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, Edmund Fitzgerald.
So does the song have anything to do with Irish revolutionaries? Surprisingly, yes. Sources say that Lightfoot borrowed the melody for his keening, heart-stirring tale of bad fate and Indian legend from a song ("Back Home in Derry") written by 20th century Irish Republican Bobby Sands. Imprisoned by the British in Northern Ireland, Sands died in 1981 after a hunger strike of 66 days.
See, popular songs are full of history. Even though the history is often not pretty and some of the songs we sing at Christmas are not necessarily full of comfort and joy.
But I think Christmas is big enough to handle a little reality.