for 25. 12. 2021

How strange to find that Christmas carols can also go out of fashion, though few musical traditions would seem to be hardier perennials. Good King Wenceslas, who ventured out into the deep, crisp and even snow lying round about, trailed by his frostbitten, quailing page boy, is nowhere to be found on Fifty Classic Christmas Carols sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Nor on three other carolling compact discs issued over the last twenty years, teetering on the edge of the desk beyond this screen.

Did the song about Wenceslas deserve to be the carol you almost loved best from about six, you wonder — after O Little Town of Bethlehem, which your mother struggled mightily to teach you to sing in tune? Or was your judgment warped by your father introducing you to it in his velvet-lined bass baritone? No, of course not. There was nothing wrong with your taste then, nor anything in your deep affection for it now, and the loathing of critics who — according to the Wikipedia — deride its lyrics as soppy doggerel or bash it for being faux-traditional is only understandable if they were forced to sing it too often when very young. Or because of an idiosyncratic train of association tying it to something as nasty as, say, gluey instant mashed potatoes or tinned, boiled carrots. 

All religions probably enthrone charity as a supreme virtue, but the root of this particular word for benevolence and alms is caritas or Christian love, in English etymology. Whether an icy trek with a gift of food for a hungry firewood forager by the actual, 10th-century Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, was real or imaginary, Good King Wenceslas glows with the heat of the spirit of Christmas.

Some of its detractors could be reacting against reminders of need and suffering. There is certainly no room for anything like that in a jingle-ho-ho-ho-bells! sort of celebration, the kind in which it is possible to sing about The Holly and the Ivy for year after year without paying any attention to that carol’s references to blood, sinners and bitter gall, or listening past the lilting, up-tempo refrain of The Infant King — ‘Sing lullaby!’ — to mentions of grief to come, with weeping, nails and the cross. (Not just an observation but a confession.)

… Brightly shone the moon that night

Though the frost was cruel

When a poor man came in sight

Gathering winter fu-uuu-el …

Perhaps it was a gibbous, waxing moon, well on its way to turning perfectly round. Perhaps someone in a Bohemia in a parallel world was surprised to discover that a cactus in a dusty corner that unaccountably survived months of absent-minded, occasional watering, had come into bloom in its season — as it had not always done, in the past. Perhaps a quail perched on a bush bent low under wet, heavy snow entered into a staring contest with a woman at a window, which delighted them both.

Amid the difficulties of the pan-misery and much else, the joy comes stealing in and is unstoppable.

H A P P Y … C H R I S T M A S

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