A Glee at Christmas

A little-known song for Christmas by Henry Lawes. This song, published in 1669, is a Christmas party song, with absolutely no religious content except the word “Christmas.”

’Tis Christmas now, ’tis Christmas now,
When Cato’s self would laugh,
And smoothing forth his wrinkled brow,
Gives liberty to Quaff,
To Dance, to Sing, to Sport and Play,
For ev’ry hour’s a holiday.

And for the Twelve days, let them pass
In mirth and jollity:
The Time doth call each Lad and Lass
That will be blithe and merry
Then Dance, and Sing, and Sport, and Play,
For ev’ry hour’s a holiday.

And from the Rising of the Sun
To th’Setting, cast off Cares;
’Tis time enough when Twelve is done
To think of our Affairs.
Then Dance, and Sing, and Sport, and Play,
For ev’ry hour’s a holiday.

Click on the image below for a PDF of sheet music for this song. The melody in the sheet music is Lawes’ melody; Lawes outlined a bass line to be played on theorbo or bass-viol, and I changed the rhythms of this slightly to fit the lyrics so bass voices could sing this part.

Tymbnail of sheet music for "A Glee at Christmas"

Non-traditional holiday traditions

This afternoon, after the Sunday services, we had a panel discussion about non-traditional traditions for Unitarian Universalist families celebrating the holidays. As I listened to the other panelists tell about their family holiday traditions, it became clear that your ethnic background has a big influence on how you celebrate holidays. With that in mind, here is my contribution to the panel discussion:

I grew up a New England Yankee, and a Unitarian Universalist. My Uncle Dick claimed that my mother’s family were Unitarians since Unitarianism began in North America, though Uncle Dick was notoriously unreliable on such things. My father’s side was Pennsylvania Dutch, and they were definitely Christian, members of the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB), a German language Methodist group. When my father announced that he was going to marry a Unitarian, that sent his mother into a dither. She was the daughter of a EUB minister, and her husband, my father’s father, served as an EUB minister for two years before he became a newspaperman. So my grandmother was in a dither, and she went to her minister with the news that her eldest son was going to marry a Unitarian. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Harper,” he said, “the Unitarians are weak on doctrine, but they are good people.” This reveals the most important thing about Unitarian Universalists and traditions: we are good people who don’t pay much attention to doctrine.

When I was a child, my family’s traditions were mostly dictated by my New England mother. Dad didn’t stand much of a chance, since we lived quite close to my mother’s twin sister, and my mother’s mother, and they were the ones who came over for holidays; whereas Dad’s family lived way down in New York City and southeastern Pennsylvania, and didn’t drive up for holidays. So many of our family traditions derived from New England Yankee culture.

Thanksgiving provides a good example of how we did family traditions. As New England Yankees, we knew we were descended from the Puritans, which we confused with the Pilgrims, so we felt a direct connection with the Thanksgiving story. As it turns out, there wasn’t much of a connection; our ancestors were indeed religious dissidents, they just didn’t happen to be Pilgrims. The important point is that we thought we were connected to the Pilgrims. Because of this supposed Pilgrim influence, I think we took it for granted that we could do what we wanted with Thanksgiving; nothing was sacred, except what we decided was sacred.

Or maybe that was the Unitarian Universalist influence. We didn’t always say grace before Thanksgiving dinner, and I don’t remember God being mentioned very often. When I was quite young, my Unitarian mother made sure I knew that public prayer was not very nice, and that Jesus himself had told his followers that if they went out and prayed on the street corners, they were hypocrites. By the same token, Mom also taught me that Unitarians don’t have to bow their heads when they pray; in fact, bowing one’s head might be making too much of a public demonstration of one’s supposed piety. We might hold hands while saying grace, but we didn’t have to bow our heads, and the few graces I remember were short and to the point.

Then my eldest cousin started attending youth group meetings at her Unitarian Universalist church, and she brought back a grace from her youth group. She had us hold hands, then she said, “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub, yay, God!” So God was mentioned at least once at our Unitarian Universalist Thanksgiving dinner. And humor was allowed and even encouraged. Another time, one of the cousins suggested we go around the table and each say something we were thankful for. This non-traditional grace stuck for a few years, then disappeared. Our family traditions continually changed and evolved.

As we and our cousins got older, several of us experimented with vegetarianism. My mother and her twin sister did the cooking, and I’m sure they rolled their eyes at the fervor with which some of us expressed our vegetarian convictions. I can’t remember any special vegetarian dishes; what got cooked was what got cooked, and you ate it or you didn’t. Besides, we vegetarians knew that if we asked for a vegetarian dish, we might well be told to cook it ourselves; this was more Unitarian influence, straight from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on “Self Reliance.” Another result of the Unitarian influence was that we were committed to social justice, and since we had all read France Moore Lappe’s book Diet for a Small Planet, there was more than one lecture from the vegetarians on the ethics of eating meat: it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef! This was another result of our combined New England Yankee and Unitarian heritages: there was always plenty of guilt to go around.

Christmas for our Unitarian Universalist family was interesting, if somewhat confusing to a young child. When I was young, our Christmases had little mention of God; Jesus was referred to as Jesus, which made some of the familiar Christmas carols sound odd; and I was a little unclear on the Christmas story. We always went to our Unitarian Universalist church for the Christmas eve candlelight service, a service with great music, lots of carol singing, an opportunity to light candles, and a brief sermon which always seemed to focus on social justice rather than a re-telling of the Christmas story.

Back at home, we followed the long-standing New England tradition of lighting a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve, just before you go to bed. Mom said, “A bayberry candle, Burned to the socket, Brings health to the house, And money to the pocket.” One year I asked what this had to do with Christmas. My mother gave a confusing answer to the effect that the candle helped light the way for Jesus and his family on their way to the inn. I’m not sure if she made that story up on the spot, or if that was something her Unitarian mother had once told her. Yet another principle of Unitarian Universalist holidays is that you get to make things up on the spot.

Christmas got more interesting as we children got older. One year I studied the Frankfurt School of Marxism at college, and realized that much of Christmas is a product of consumer capitalism. This Marxist analysis annoyed my family less than you might expect; as Unitarian Universalists, we were used to questioning everything; my sisters and cousins all challenged some aspect of just about every holiday or tradition we had. I guess we were lucky that we were all Unitarian Universalists; I think it must be very annoying for non-Unitarian Universalists when they have to put up with our incessant critiques and challenges. Although for me, such challenges are half the fun of holidays and traditions.

One last thing I should mention: The combination of Unitarian Universalist values and New England Yankee culture has made me very doubtful about all holidays. Those old Puritans thought the only holiday should be Sunday, the weekly day of rest. To celebrate anything else was to be idolatrous; idolatry consists of placing an undue importance on something which is not all that important. As I get older, I am surprised at how strong that feeling is in me. My partner and I do not exchange gifts on Christmas, and the main way we celebrate is we go out for Chinese food. Thanksgiving is a good excuse to have a meal with family. The important part of holidays for me is to maintain connections with family and friends, and to keep alive cultural traditions; engaging in a supernatural or metaphysical interpretation of holidays is placing an undue importance on something that is not important.

To sum up, then, here’s what I know about Unitarian Universalist holiday traditions:
1. we are weak on doctrine, and as a corollary we can make things up on the spot;
2. we are influenced by regional cultures;
3. we challenge everything and are critical of everything;
4. a sense of humor is required.

Christmas and Hallowe’en with P.D.Q Bach

It is a rare song that’s appropriate at both Christmas and Hallowe’en season, but the much-beloved “Good King Kong Looked Out” (from A Consort of Christmas Carols by P.D.Q. Bach [1807-1742]) is one such carol. The thought of good King K. squinching through the snow made me want to illustrate this traditional carol, using much-modified public domain images….

Good King Kong Looked Out


Jenni suggested the Ferry Building in San Francisco, so that’s where Ray, Tara, and I met her a little after three this afternoon. Both our tenors were ill, but we figured no one would notice that both Ray and I were singing bass. We started out just inside the main entrance, but between the traffic along Embarcadero and the crowds in the building, it was too noisy. So we went down to the south entrance, and set up there. “What should we start with?” “Deck the Hall, page 11.” Jenni counted us in, and we began to sing.

Once we got in the groove of singing, I could relax a little and look at the people who were listening to us. Everyone was smiling. Except two small children, who stood listenly raptly, their mouths slightly open. We decided to take a break, and the woman who was with the two children thanked us. “My kids are just enthralled,” she said. “Oh, then we’ll sing something else for you,” said Jenni. The kids wanted to hear “Frosty the Snowman,” but we didn’t have the music for it, so we settled on “Jingle Bells.”

Later we sang at the north end of the Ferry Building, and people had the same reactions: the adults all smiled, and the children just stood and listened. We all hear a lot of Christmas music in December — the endless Christmas carols played as background music in stores, the songs you hear on the radio — but it’s much better when you hear live music, even when it’s performed by people who are not professional musicians. Live music is not neatly packaged by corporate bean counters; it is not controlled by the touch of your finger on a touch screen; it is not performed in some acoustically perfect recording studio somewhere. Unlike recorded music, it is imperfect and alive and a little bit wild.

We sang until we got tired. We sang several of the carols several times over, but they never got boring, because people were smiling, and one little girl started dancing. Finally we had to stop singing. We were all smiling, too.

What I did on vacation

Some people take trips when they go on vacation. Some people catch up on their sleep. I’m taking a week of vacation, and I decided to finish up the collection of Christmas carols that I’ve been working on for several years, and finally turn it into a book. Here it is:

YuletideSongAndCarolBook“The Yuletide Song and Carol Book” — This is a collection of four dozen Yuletide songs, in easy arrangements for SATB voices. Songs include familiar classics such as “Joy to the World,” lesser-known favorites like “Sussex Mummers Carol” and “Los Posadas,” familiar songs such as “Go Tell It on the Mountains” that are hard to find in SATB arrangements, and a few little-known gems such as William Billings’ “Shiloh.” The texts mostly come from older Unitarian, Universalist, American Ethical Union, and Quaker hymnals and songbooks, and will appeal to most religious liberals. Suitable for carolers, choirs, and informal groups that enjoy singing four-part harmony. 8-1/2×11, 100 pp., $9.99.

Now available through Lulu.com

(Soon to be available for distribution through Ingram, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble.)

Twelfth day

It’s the twelfth day of Christmas. What to do on the twelfth day of Christmas? You could read Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” Or some family traditions hold that this is the day to take down your Christmas tree.

Or, if you have a certain kind of obsessive personality, you could sing every verse of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” And, in case you want to engage in this last effort, I’m posting a PDF of sheet music with guitar chords and a SATB/piano accompaniment.


N.B.: The first five verses are written out completely. Then the last page shows all twelve verses, and you’ll have to figure out on your own where to start each new verse.

16 SATB Xmas carols and songs

I’ve added a new Web page with 16 Christmas carols and songs, in basic SATB arrangements (one is STB) — including carols not in the current Unitarian Universalist (UU) hymnals (like “Jingle Bells”), carols with words from older UU hymnals (like “Joy to the World”), etc. You can find the page here.

(Yes, I know Christmas is over for the year. I’ve been meaning to put these online for a couple of years, I never seem to have time to do it before Christmas, so I’m going to put them up now.)

Sunny and seventy

I’m getting ready for the Christmas Eve candlelight services at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. It’s over seventy degrees and sunny, and while the sun was hitting my office window it got warm enough that I had to have the door open to cool off. At this point, some of you who live in places where it is now cold and dark and maybe snowy might be saying to yourselves, “Warm and sunny? That doesn’t feel like Christmas Eve!”

Ten years ago, I spent a year working part-time as the religious educator for Church of the Larger Fellowship, an online congregation that serves religious liberals around the world, including in the tropics and in the Southern Hemisphere. On my first week on the job, the senior minister and the administrator both warned me to remember that given our congregation it was a mistake to draw parallels between Easter and springtime, and between Christmas and the winter solstice. If I did so, I was further warned, I would be sure to get complaints from our members in places like Australia and New Zealand and equatorial Africa. That’s how I learned to be able to separate Christmas from the seasons.

Now that I’m in the Bay Area, however, I’m living in a so-called Mediterranean climate, a climate that is similar to the climate of Bethlehem and Nazareth (though we are farther north so we have much longer nights at this time of year). Our seasons correspond reasonably well with the seasons of ancient Judea. We’ve had a very dry year, so this year at Christmas because it’s sunny and warm we’re praying for the winter rains to hit — like the people of the Ancient Near East, we’re less concerned with snow and crackling fires and short nights, and we’re far more concerned with where our water is going to come from.

So this year here’s what I’m humming to myself:

   I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas,
   Just like the ones in El Nino years,
   When the treetops glisten
   And children listen
   To hear raindrops falling near….


Michele, my voice teacher and friend, sent out an invitation to some caroling in her neighborhood. Even though she lives way over in north Berkeley, I decided to go — I didn’t know anyone who was going to go caroling near where we live, and I wasn’t up to organizing caroling on my own.

Close to twenty people gathered in Michele’s living room yesterday evening. We introduced ourselves, and ran through two carols where we thought we might sing some harmony — “Silent Night” and “Deck the Hall.” Fortunately there was another bass there who helped me through “Deck the Hall,” and I was able to help him once or twice in “Silent Night” — it’s always easier to sing your part when there’s someone else singing with you.

We headed out into Michele’s neighborhood. Michele said we would only sing at houses where we could see Christmas decorations. There were half a dozen children with us, and they ran ahead to scope out likely houses. We’d gather on the sidewalk in front of the house, Michele would quietly tell us which carol — “‘Frosty the Snowman,’ page 3 of the packet!” — the kids would ring the doorbell, and as soon as someone showed up, we’d sing.

Some people listened to us while standing indoors; in one case because there were dogs that desperately wanted to get out; in other cases maybe because it’s a little weird to have a score of people standing in front of your house singing. Other people came out and listened. Reactions ranged from politely tolerant to very enthusiastic. One woman, who had a foreign accent (maybe Middle Eastern?), was really very touched by the singing; we sang her another song.

After an hour, we were getting cold, and some of the younger kids were getting a little bit tired. So we all said “Good night!” and “Merry Christmas!” and dispersed into the night; the younger kids probably heading for bed. As for me, I had some errands to run in downtown Berkeley; but I found myself humming Christmas carols all the way home.