Five Yuletide Songs

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Sermon — “Five Yuletide Songs”

This really isn’t going to be a sermon. Partly, this is an excuse to sing some holiday songs — because singing is one of the best things about the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season. But the other reason I wanted to do this service is because I was trying to figure out exactly what a Christmas carol is.

First of all, a carol is a Christian religious song. We’re most familiar with Christmas carols, but there are also Easter carols and Whitsuntide carols. Second of all, “Christmas” has a precise liturgical meaning: it is one day only, December 25. The weeks before Christmas are actually the Advent season. Strictly speaking, you sing Advent carols during Advent, and save the Christmas carols for Christmas day.

In short, many of the songs we call “Christmas carols” are not Christmas carols, because either they’re secular (and not religious), or they’re about another holiday altogether.

Our first song, “Here We Come A-Wassailing,” is not religious, and it’s a wassailing song. Wassail is an alcoholic concoction made from apple cider and spices. To go wassailing means to go from house to house singing a song about wassail, in hopes that whoever is at the house will give you a drink and maybe some money. Wassailing probably dates back to pre-Christian paganism. It mostly involved people from the laboring classes going to the houses owned by the elite classes. After the wassailers sang, the rich people were supposed to pass out wassail and money — and if they didn’t, the wassailers might vandalize their house. This helps explain why Christmas was made illegal in the seventeenth century Massachusetts. The rich folks didn’t want working stiffs expecting handouts; and the old pagan custom of wassailing was undermining the Puritan social order.

[At this point in the service, we sang “Here We Come A-Wassailing”]

Our next Christmas song is “Jingle Bells,” written by James Lord Pierpont. James was a drinker and a ne’er-do-well whose debts got so bad, he and his wife had to live with his father, a Unitarian minister. Hoping to get rich quick, James then tried his luck in the Gold Rush, but returned to Boston two years later completely broke. He continued to live with his parents until his wife died in 1856. He then left his children with his parents, and went to Savannah, Georgia, to work as the organist at the Unitarian church there, where his brother was minister. James married a woman from Savannah, and they had to go live in her parents’ house. The Unitarian church closed because it was an abolitionist church, but James stayed in Savannah and wound up having to serve as a clerk in the Confederate Army, while his brother was a chaplain in the Union army. It’s hard to know how someone with such a tragic life could write such a happy song.

“Jingle Bells” is a sleighing song, not a Christmas song. The mid-nineteenth century genre of sleighing songs was a racy genre in its day — a young man and a young woman alone in a sleigh without supervision! But now, it evokes a sense of Christmas nostalgia.

[At this point, we sang “Jingle Bells”]

With our next song, “Go Tell It on the Mountains,” we finally get to a Christmas carol. It’s also an African American spiritual. It first appeared in print in 1901, in the book “New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.” The Fisk Jubilee Singers, founded in the 1871, were the first African American superstar musical group. They performed at the White House in 1872, and toured Europe in 1873, the first African American music group to perform abroad. The piano accompaniment we’ll hear is by Harry T. Burleigh, arguably the first great African American composer. In the early twentieth century, he was hugely popular as a composer of art songs.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, “Go Tell It on the Mountains” became popular after someone — maybe activist Fannie Lou Hamer — changed the words to “Go tell it on the mountains / To let my people go.” Though we won’t sing those words, that fits the song well, since the longing for freedom and justice is inherent in every African American spiritual. And that longing for freedom and justice, a core teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, is an integral part of the Christmas story itself.

[At this point, we sang “Go Tell It on the Mountains”]

“Good King Wenceslas,” our next song, takes for its hero a real person. Wenceslas ruled Bohemia from the year 921 until his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, assassinated him a decade later. Wenceslas became legendary as a good and righteous ruler who cared for the poor, and he was later canonized as a saint.

Is “Good King Wenceslas” a Christmas carol? The feast day of Saint Wenceslas is September 28, and the carol mentions St. Stephen’s Day, which is December 26. So you could argue that this carol should really be sung on either September 28 or December 26. However, John Mason Neale, who wrote the words, first published this song in his 1853 book Carols for Christmas-tide. So the author of the words intended this as a Christmas carol, even though it doesn’t mention Christmas. But I think of this as a Christmas carol for a very simple reason: one of the core teachings of Jesus of Nazareth was to care for people who are poor and hungry, and that’s what this carol is all about.

When we sing this, it’s fun to have high voices — sopranos, altos, and children — sing the parts marked “High”, and low voices — basses and tenors — sing the parts marked “Low,” while everyone sings the parts marked “All.” Because we’re Unitarian Universalists, feel free to go ahead and sing all of the parts, or none of them, or whatever you want.

[At this point, we sang “Good King Wenceslas”]

Our last song is “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.” Two different people — Emily Huntington Miller and Benjamin Hanby — wrote similar lyrics about a visit from St. Nicholas in the mid-nineteenth century. I went with Emily Miller’s lyrics, adjusting them a bit to avoid gender stereotyping.

I love this song because it’s one of the songs and poems that added Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, to our Christmas mythos. I wouldn’t call it a religious song. It’s just happy and fun and not at all serious, and as such it presages a whole raft of later fun Christmas songs, ranging from “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer,” to “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.”

I also love this song because Emily Miller tried to write from a child’s point of view. As goofy as it is, the song does capture some of what it’s like to be a child at Christmas. It reminds me, just a little bit, of my own childhood Christmases.

[At this point, we sang “Jolly Old St. Nicholas”]

As I said, this sermon is mostly an excuse to sing some fun holiday songs. But I hope it also gets you thinking about how our current Christmas mythos encompasses a wide range of moods and feelings. Some of our favorite Christmas songs are indeed Christian; but other favorite Christmas songs are actually pagan or completely secular. Some of our favorite Christmas songs touch on serious topics like poverty, freedom, and justice; while other favorite Christmas songs are just goofy and fun.

Maybe this helps explain why Christmas is such a big deal in our society. Christmas has grown beyond a purely Christian holiday to a broader cultural phenomenon. The Christmas mythos now has so many elements that there’s no way to incorporate all of them into your own personal celebration of Christmas. And so each family has the opportunity to make Christmas be what you want it to be.

If you want to focus your Christmas on the person of Jesus, you can do that; you can even choose your interpretation of Jesus — the kind personal Jesus, the social justice Jesus, the radical rabble-rousing rabbi Jesus, and so on. If you want to celebrate the pagan holidays of Yule and winter solstice, you can do that. If you want to leave out the religious content and make it a more-or-less secular cultural event, you can do that. If you want to ignore Christmas completely, that’s more difficult but it can be done.

And however you have decided to celebrate (or not celebrate) Christmas, I hope that connecting with family and friends is a part of this holiday season for you. For it is this which lies at the heart of every human celebration — our very human need for connection, for escaping loneliness and isolation to reach out and connect with other human beings.