or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, December 25, 2010


Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate it, happy holidays (because there certainly are a bunch of them around this time of year) to those who don't. We don't here in my household, but we're happy to have a few days off with good food and plenty of time to relax.

I was brought up in a household where Christmas was Kind Of A Big Deal, To Say The Least, and so naturally I developed an affection for many of the trappings of the holiday, including the music. Here--and there will be a point to this, I promise--is my list of Top Eleven Christmas tunes, in no particular order.

1) "Angels We Have Heard on High," Amy Grant. Too many versions of this carol sound rather begrudging, but whatever Grant's problem in the very highest register, there's no doubt that this song sounds ecstatic, as it ought to. The Roches' a cappella version is a close second.

2) "Carol of the Bells," The Barra McNeils. This Canadian group breathes fresh life into the familiar Ukrainian carol with an exciting Celtic spin (and a misleading time-signature change).

3) "But who may abide the day of His coming," Messiah dir. Nicholas McGegan. Everyone else wants to hear the Hallelujah Chorus or perhaps the joyous "For unto us a child is born," but for my money, this is the highlight of Messiah: countertenor Drew Minter does it right, handling the vertiginous coloratura with aplomb and making the arrival of Jesus sound terrifying.

4) "Home on Christmas Day," Kristin Chenoweth. We've seen her live and she's tiny, but Chenoweth has got a big set of pipes: here she dials back the sheer size (well, somewhat) for an intimate, melancholic song to someone who can't be with her for Christmas. It is radiantly beautiful.

5) "Elf's Lament," Barenaked Ladies with Michael Bublé. Funny, charming, subversive, clever little song from the point of view of Santa's elves.

6) "From a Distance (Christmas version)," Bette Midler. God, I am such a sap, but even this once overplayed song, when reorchestrated and slightly re-worded, with snippets of Christmas carols ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night", ""Angels We Have Heard on High") tucked into it, turns into something lovely.

7) "December Will Be Magic Again," Kate Bush. Not a Christmas song, exactly, but it fits the season perfectly, by turns moody and joyful. When Kate sings "See how I fall....like the snow!" the second time around, you really feel as if December is magic.

8) "The Coventry Carol." I can't even tell you who performs it, but it's from a compilation called "Christmas Kids' Classics" put out by (I'm pretty sure) EMI. You know how it is: these days you rip all your CDs, and eventually you sell them or lend them out, and then you don't have the packaging or the liner notes or anything, and sometimes with an obscurity like this even the Internet isn't much help. I don't see how "The Coventry Carol" is a kids' song at all, because it's all about killing babies and so forth; but this a cappella version, with a fearsome basso line like the voice of doom ("All young children to SLAY", indeed), is morbidly thrilling and very Olde Englysshe.

9) "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," 101 Strings Orchestra. I know--how bourgeois, how grandparents. But someone rewrote the classic Christmas carol as a fugue, of all things, in the style of Weinberger, and it is deliciously unexpected.

10) "Santa Baby," Kylie Minogue. Of course we are all supposed to think Eartha Kitt's version is the best, but I have never heard a better one than this, which perfectly balances sex-kitten cooing and calculated greed. (We will not speak of the ickily Betty Boop-ish Madonna version, ever.)

11) "O Come O Come Emmanuel," Enya. Make fun all you want ("South Park" did), but with her glowing corona of multi-layered vocals, she finds the numinous in an often drab carol.

I see that I have managed to pretty well use up my annual supply of italics. And just in time for the end of the year!

Now, the Latin version of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" (which Enya performs after thoughtfully singing the English version for comparison) contains the word "Gaude", which is Latin for "Rejoice". When you look at the word, it is impossible not to think of the word "gaudy", isn't it? And yet "gaudy" means "showily vulgar and flashy", so far removed from the idea of rejoicing. And yet it is not that hard to see how the word could have evolved a string of meanings that supplemented and finally supplanted the original sense: maybe rejoice -> celebration -> decorations for celebrations -> shiny things -> vulgar shiny things.

Unfortunately, "gaudy" is a bit of an etymological mess. The "rejoice" sense seems clear enough, and Old English "gaudi" once meant a large ornamental rosary-bead (as opposed to the little beads that make up the main part of the rosary, and that once were made of the rose petals, rolled up tightly and dried, that gave the thing its name). But there is another line of evolution which is as follows: rejoice -> be merry -> a jest or trick -> a deception, which would naturally lead us to the sense of "false but made to look genuine", which gaudy things certainly might be--a large glass gemstone, a brass ring plated brightly in gold.


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