Let’s see, I’ve got Winter Solstice I-IV in my junk box/arm rest, an instrumental folk-music Christmas/winter CD in the player, Nox Arcana’s Winter Knight currently lined up on iTunes, and I think there’s something else kinda solstice-y cued up after that. Yup, it’s December.
I tend to alternate two instrumental to one non-English vocal winter/Christmas recording this time of year, unless I’m doing Christmas and Hanukkah cards. At that point, English texts don’t distract me so much as to prevent my addressing cards. And my selections lean towards the odd, ancient, unusual, and New Age. Thankfully, since the mid 1980s, we musical Odds have a lot more music to pick from for this part of the calendar and liturgical year.
I think it started with Windham Hill’s A Winter Solstice, a compilation recording of winter solstice inspired music. It made a nice background and meditation CD for those who’d heard “Little Drummer Boy” once too often, or who were not into the Christian traditions. Windham Hill followed it with more CDs, which soon became “fancy carol arrangements” before getting yanked back to more winter/secular music. Other labels and artists followed suit. At the same time, neoCeltic music really took off as a subset of New Age, which is where I discovered Celtic harp and one of my favorite recordings, Kim Robertson’s Celtic Christmas (and later Celtic Christmas II.) I’d never heard the song “Christ Child’s Lullaby” before then, a song from Scotland that includes a drone harmony that really appealed to me.
Meanwhile, the Christmas Revels began releasing CDs of their productions. Hey, here’s all kinds of music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance that I’ve never heard of! Whee! Since I can memorize music by ear very, very easily, I soon had a huge repertoire of strange holiday music, some of which was obviously not entirely Christian. And some that had such strange imagery that I kinda sat there, head tilted like the RCA dog, going, “Oh, I never read that in the Bible or Tanakh.” You know, the “Cherry Tree Carol” or (even stranger), the “Corpus Christi Carol (Down in Yon Forest).”
Many of these are not performed by your average choir or caroling group, for a number of reasons. Some are a little strange, some make no sense unless you’ve done a bit of digging into the symbology, some are very difficult to sing well (“Don Oich ud im Beatbel”/ “Of the Matter of Bethlehem”), some are pretty Catholic in terms of theology, and some are just unfamiliar. Most people like to hear old faithfuls. I do too, but I also like to hear Russian Orthodox chant, mystical carols, Goths-do-Christmas (Nox Arcana), Spanish and Basque dance carols, and the old English tunes that almost died out during the Victorian period.
Thanks to groups like the Revels, Inc., Spanish and other European early music groups, Celtic revivalists, and others, plus the New Age musicians of winter, we have a lot more choices in terms of non-Victorian Christmas and winter-themed music. I kinda like being able to hum the “Kentucky Wassail” under my breath in the teachers’ lounge. “She built up her barn/to keep the cow warm;/ and a little bit of liquor never did no harm!/ For it’s joy be to you/ and a jolly wassail.”
And a very happy second night of Hanukkah to my Jewish readers! May the memory of the miracle burn bright through all the year.