Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes and We three kings of Orient are — to say nothing of if thou knowst it telling: Have you ever observed just how peculiar the grammar and syntax of Christmas carols can be? Or maybe that should run The songs of Christmas, noticed thou, / the strangeness filled with are — and how?
The oddest may be “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” whose phrasings are now so alien that even the first line gets regularly mangled — punctuated (and sung) as God rest ye, merry gentlemen, which suggests the gentlemen have made so merry that God needs to send them sleep, saving us from their wassailed warbling through the streets. The original meaning was “rest” in the sense of “keep,” requiring the comma in a different place: God rest ye merry, gentlemen — a prayer that God keep joy in the hearts of men. Not that this stops them from spiking the eggnog at the office party, but it might lessen the next day’s hangover.
Meanwhile, a later verse tells us that a blessed angel came and unto certain shepherds / brought tidings of the same. What same? How that in Bethlehem was born / the Son of God by name, of course, and there’s something wonderful about that line. It’s incompetent poetry, filler to make a rhyme of the most naive sort — by name, forsooth — and it’s really quite charming, in its way.
Even stranger is the moment when we’re told that the newborn babe was laid within a manger — the which his Mother Mary / did nothing take in scorn. You’d think that would create some which–witch confusion for modern singers, but not even children hesitate at the line. English doesn’t use the which as a construction much anymore. Still, when carolers sing it out, the phrase seems to come from the authentic heart of the language. It feels right, somehow. It feels old.
That feeling of antiquity, that power to appear traditional, remains a requirement of the music — even though Christmas carols are essentially a Victorian invention. Not that people didn’t sing seasonal songs before the nineteenth century: Ever since St. Augustine first came to Canterbury to convert the nation, England has been full of local hymns and carols, from “Christus Est Natus” to “The Cherry Tree Carol.” But the Victorians were the ones who systematized it all (especially Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer, with their 1871 songbook Christmas Carols New and Old).The universal Christmas canon they established contained some genuinely older songs: “The First Nowell,” for instance, and the Wesleyan “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” Much of what the Victorians did, however, was write new songs they tried to make sound old.
The result was often silly, to say the least: the pointless “thees” and “thous,” the pretentiously archaic syntax, the inversions and padding for rhyme. Nonetheless, every year, one or another of those carols catches me and hauls me in. The first Christmas song usually steals into town right after Thanksgiving, like the gentle plink that signals a cloudburst, and within days the deluge is inescapable: the office elevators and the street corners and the stores awash in holiday music. Beginning as an unwelcome reminder of just how fast Christmas is coming, the ceaseless tintinnabulation of those old familiar anthems quickly grows almost unbearable: as cloying as silver bells jangling endlessly in the middle distance.
I’ve never known a world without recorded Christmas carols. When I was young, my sisters and I would dig out our parents’ scratchy discs of Joan Baez trilling away at “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and Burl Ives growling out “The Friendly Beasts” and Peter, Paul, and Mary harmonizing a song whose name I can’t remember, but it was about a shivering boy who shares his only piece of bread with a gray-haired lady on Christmas Eve, and we used to play it over and over again on the hi-fi in the basement.