Friday, 3 January 2014

Christmas songs - like 'em or loathe 'em? by Eve Edwards

Now the New Year has arrived and we are packing away the tinsel and glitter, I wanted to ask if you have a favourite or a hated Christmas song?  If so, I'd like to hear about it because something happened to me this Christmas.  I have developed a serious aversion to the popular versions of seasonal songs, even the good ones.  As for Frosty, Rudolf, Santas stuck up chimneys: you all make me want to emigrate to a country with no Christmas traditions.  I suppose there is a perverse pleasure in listening to the Beach Boys' doing 'We Three Kings' - it is truly so awful I say listen to it at your peril - but mostly the songs manage to squeeze out all trace of Christmas cheer in me, particularly when I hear them in shops.

This is not a new phenomenon.  My grandmother (b. 1910) worked in stores all her life and I remember her bemoaning the tape-on-loop of Christmas songs which was played from November onwards - this memory is from the 1970s and maybe started even earlier in her career.

It started me thinking about the history of Christmas music as annoyance.  In Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Scrooge, of course, hates carols (adding another layer of meaning to the title). I find myself sympathising with him as one young caroller

stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of
 'God bless you merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!'
 Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.

The boy does it to punish Scrooge as everyone knows he hates all Christmas sentimentality and yes, it is very annoying to have a carol shouted at you through the door.  When we lived in London we had one bunch who came round in about October and only knew one verse - and collecting for themselves, we guessed.  They were not successful.

The tradition of annoyance is much older though and can be traced to the old British and Irish tradition of mummers.  The tradition still going strong in many parts of the country.  Near where I live, in the villages south of Oxford, there are still bands of these mummers going about at Christmas as a kind of rough carol singers and play performers, often using the pubs as their venues (drinking and Christmas songs have a long history too!).  The key is they are disguised by their costumes so the behaviour has a carnival element of topsy-turvy about it.  They are worlds away from shop muzak and use annoyance for the right reasons: the shaking up of the social order, reminder of older practices, the release of a (E P Thompson) Customs in Common style under-class energy.

Thinking back to some of the best loved carols, there is a hint of this in the words, isn't there?  'So bring us some figgy pudding…we won't go until we've got some etc.'  There a menace to the words if sung vigorously enough!

In modern England, this is perhaps more a memory than a reality (I imagine the costumes cover a fair amount of bankers and doctors) but mummers I've seen are happily untidy and amateur - not sickly slick like many other Christmas traditions.

Perhaps you'd like to tell me your favourite and least favourite example of Christmas music in the comment section below?

Happy New Year!


11 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

Oh, definitely shop Muzak as my least favourite! And the fact that they start early. I really want to yell, "Bah! Humbug!" I quite like "Ding Dong Merrily On High" mainly because it's the tune to the Bransle "L'Officiale", a Renaissance dance which I have done with a couple of groups. Have to agree with you about all the Santa songs and the lie.

Susan Price said...

I worked in shops in the 1970s, and can empathise with your grandmother! The supermarket used to be issued with three tapes every week, and that wasn't too bad. But one Christmas we got lumped with a single tape for three weeks. 8am-8pm some days, I was forced to listen to the same 'festive' songs, over and over and over... I felt irritation, boredom, irrational fury, despair. It was torture. I particuarly came to hate, hate, hate the one that goes 'it's a marshmallow world in the winter' to very smarmy music. I used to try all sorts of tricks to be in the store-room, or out the back, just to escape it.
Without trying, you learned the order of the songs, so you knew that the worst was coming... It was awful.
I was at a till recently, near one of those automatic ones that goes, brighly, 'Have you checked your club card?' And menacingly, 'Unauthorised goods in the packing area.'
I said to the woman on the till, I bet that drives you round the bend, doesn't it?" Her face said it all. She could find no words.
Honestly, something should be done.

Susan Price said...

And on menacing traditional songs.
Where I come from, in the Black Country, there was a little ditty that went:-
We come to bring Noo 'Ear in,
T'owd un out and new un in -
A-pie-eye, a-pie-eye
A-pie-a-pepper-corn.

So bring we summat to mek we glad,
An' we'll wish you good instead of bad -
A-pie-eye, a-pie-eye
A-pie-a-pepper-corn.

This is probably my favourite seasonal song - though not necessarily this version - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vteb3p1JQBk

Penny Dolan said...

Good post to read! I don't like cheery Christmas songs at all - especially Hollywood ones - and think that's why the Pogues dark, raucous and drunken "Fairytale in New York" is such a welcome change at this time.

For far too many years, Auld Lang Syne used to make me collapse in buckets of irrational tears of gloom. Maybe its time to try Sue Price's menacing? "She woz menacing 'im with carols, mlud!"

DLM said...

Having recently started a new job where I don't have a transistor radio at my desk (YET) and we can't listen online, I'm having awful issues with brainworms.

Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad" has been the worst. I'm near slitting my wrists as it loops on repeat in my brain (and of *course* I know hardly any of the words!). The worst part is, I'm doing it to myself.

Head, meet desk. *Bang bang bang bang*

Petrea Burchard said...

DLM, I know about ear worms! I always have one, sometimes the same song for weeks. I can only hope it won't be something truly awful.

The Christmas music I most dislike is rock 'n roll Christmas music. I don't know why. Chuck Berry, Tom Petty, anybody. Christmas and rock 'n roll do not mix.

I do like carolers, though. The kids in our neighborhood come every year. They don't sound fabulous but it doesn't matter, and they're so happy to have cookies and punch.

This year we also had good, well-rehearsed carolers, unusual in my part of southern California. They were collecting for the Philippine typhoon refugees and seemed utterly sincere and so grateful for a bit of money to send home.

Susan Price said...

DLM, your despair made me laugh! Sorry. Yes, ear-worms are a vile affliction. I was once told that the only way to get rid of them is to replace them with another. The person who told me this recommended 'The Cat Came Back' as the replacement. It worms deeply in, but is usually much preferable to whatever it replaces.

The cat came back
The very next day.
The cat came back - we thought it was a goner -
But it just wouldn't stay away...

Not much help, of course, if you don't know The Cat...

And Penny - complete agreement about Fairy Tale of New York! But I rather like Auld Lang Syne and plucking the gowans fine..

DLM said...

Hee. Always good to find the fun in a bit of misery. Sadly, for me it always seems the cure for one brain worm is just to suffer from another one. Hence the need for a little radio at my office!

bookauhubooknook said...

There was a perculiar version of Santa Baby that so far only Boots has ever played and I was ALWAYS in there just in time for this delight. I don't especially like this song to start with since it's all about cajoling something out of someone, but Eartha Kitt was such a brilliant diva I came round to liking her version and her version ONLY. The Boots one though..... *shudder* I've never heard such a smug, snide and horribly nasal version ever before. The epitome of the spoilt, simpering child, that song haunts me.

That and Bing Crosby Dreaming of a White Christmas - dear Lordy that is dreary! I crave Whizzard when that one comes on the air!

The one song I really liked was Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, where the singer added in an extra verse which was basically Rudolph saying 'Hang on a minute - weren't you lot taking the mickey out of me a second ago? How come you're so nice now, you backstabby lot?!'. The perverse part of me felt quite smug when I heard that one! Always felt poor Rudolph came out of that song badly...

bookauhubooknook said...

There was a perculiar version of Santa Baby that so far only Boots has ever played and I was ALWAYS in there just in time for this delight. I don't especially like this song to start with since it's all about cajoling something out of someone, but Eartha Kitt was such a brilliant diva I came round to liking her version and her version ONLY. The Boots one though..... *shudder* I've never heard such a smug, snide and horribly nasal version ever before. The epitome of the spoilt, simpering child, that song haunts me.

That and Bing Crosby Dreaming of a White Christmas - dear Lordy that is dreary! I crave Whizzard when that one comes on the air!

The one song I really liked was Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, where the singer added in an extra verse which was basically Rudolph saying 'Hang on a minute - weren't you lot taking the mickey out of me a second ago? How come you're so nice now, you backstabby lot?!'. The perverse part of me felt quite smug when I heard that one! Always felt poor Rudolph came out of that song badly...

Leslie Wilson said...

Fave loathe - 'Last Christmas I gave you my heart' closely followed by 'Do they know it's Christmas' unfair, because it comes from fund-raising for the hungry, but a woman in Waitrose applied it to her dog...
Favourite carol, nowadays: 'The Holly and the Ivy' and 'In Dulci Jubilo'. I like the first because it's dancy and about greenery.