Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I'll Be Home for Christmas - A Christmas Music Countdown

“Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.”

On Dec. 18, 1965, Gemini VII’s crew of Frank F. Borman, II and James A. Lovell, Jr., returned to earth after having spent 13 days in space for a total of 206 orbits. They were joined on orbit by the Gemini-6A flight which performed the first rendezvous maneuver of a manned spacecraft. While still in space, NASA communication personnel asked if they wanted any particular music piped up to them. The crew requested Bing Crosby's recording of “I'll Be Home for Christmas.”

“I'll Be Home for Christmas" was written by Buck Ram, Kim Gannon and Walter Kent.

According to Wikipedia, in 1943, this song joined “White Christmas” to become one of America's most popular Christmas songs. The recording by Bing Crosby shot to the top ten of the record charts that year and became a holiday musical tradition in the United States. The idea of being home for Christmas originated in World War I when soldiers at first thought that the war would be quick and they would return by Christmastime. This inevitably did not happen, hence the line "if only in my dreams".

A song titled “I'll Be Home for Christmas” was first copyrighted on Aug. 24, 1943, by Kent (music) and James “Kim” Gannon (lyrics). The two revised and re-copyrighted their song on Sept. 27, 1943, and it was this version that was made famous by Crosby. The label on Crosby's recording credits “I'll Be Home for Christmas” to Kent, Gannon, and Ram. Later recordings usually credit only Kent and Gannon. The discrepancy arose from the fact that on December 21, 1942 Buck Ram copyrighted a song titled "I'll Be Home for Christmas (Tho' Just in Memory)"—that song bore little or no resemblance, other than its title, to the Crosby recording.

According to Ram, who was primarily a lyricist, he had written the lyrics as a 16-year-old, homesick college student. Prior to his publisher’s planned release, he had discussed the song with two acquaintances in a bar. He left a copy with them, but never spoke to them about it again. Both he and his publisher were shocked when the song was released by a competing publishing house. Per news articles of the day, Ram's publisher, who had been holding the song back a year because they were coming out with “White Christmas,” sued Gannon and Kent's publisher and prevailed in court.

On Oct. 4, 1943, Crosby recorded “I'll Be Home for Christmas” with the John Scott Trotter Orchestra. Within about a month of Kent and Gannon's copyright, the song hit the music charts and remained there for eleven weeks, peaking at number three. The following year, the song reached number 19 on the charts. It touched a tender place in the hearts of Americans, both soldiers and civilians, who were then in the depths of World War II, and it earned Crosby his fifth gold record. “I'll Be Home for Christmas” became the most requested song at Christmas U.S.O. shows in both Europe and the Pacific and Yank, the G.I. magazine, said Crosby accomplished more for military morale than anyone else of that era.

“I'll Be Home for Christmas” was recorded by Perry Como (1946), Frank Sinatra (1957) and countless other artists, including Elvis Presley. And the team of Kent and Gannon continued to write songs, although none attained the popularity of “I'll Be Home for Christmas.” Kent also composed the hit song, “(There'll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover,” with the lyricist Nat Burton. Buck Ram is one of the top five songwriters of BMI's first 50 years. His hits include: “Only You,” “The Great Pretender,” “The Magic Touch,” “Twilight Time,” and “Remember When.”

The Nephew will be coming home for Christmas from college on Dec. 22nd. Last year, he spent Christmas in London. I think he’ll be very happy to be spending it back home here with his family – his father, his grandparents, and his aunt and uncles.

This song ranks among my sentimental favorites, along with “White Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” There are many military members serving away from home, overseas, as well as business people who must travel during the holidays. Particularly for the military members, all our wishes are with you this Christmas and all through the year.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas - A Christmas Music Countdown

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on,
our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the Yule-tide gay,
From now on,
our troubles will be miles away.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” wasn’t originally a very merry little song. Introduced by Judy Garland in the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The song was credited to Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, Frank Sinatra later recorded a version with modified lyrics, which has become more common than the original. In 2007, ASCAP ranked "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" the third most performed Christmas song written by ASCAP members of the past five years.

According to Wikipedia, the song was written while Martin was vacationing in a house in Birmingham, Ala., that his father Hugh Martin designed for his mother as a honeymoon cottage. The house was located in the Southside section of the city, across the street from Hugh's mother and right beside her aunt. The song first appeared in a scene in “Meet Me in St. Louis,” in which a St. Louise family is distraught by the father's plans to move to New York City for a job promotion, leaving behind their beloved just before the long-anticipated Louisiana Purchase Exposition begins. In a scene set on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland's character, Esther, sings the song to cheer up her despondent five-year-old sister, Tootie, played by Margaret O'Brien.

When presented with the original draft, Garland, her co-star Tom Drake and director Vincente Minnelli criticized the song as depressing. Garland complained that if she sang this song to her little co-star, audiences would think she was a monster:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Just try having a merry Christmas after singing lyrics like that. ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas – it may be your last’?

Though he initially resisted, songwriter Hugh Martin made several changes to make the song more upbeat. For example, the lines “It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past” became “Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” Garland's version of the song, which was also released as a single by Decca Records, became popular among United States troops serving in World War II; her performance at the Hollywood Canteen brought many soldiers to tears.

In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked Martin to revise the line “Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow.” He told Martin, “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” Martin's new line, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” has since become more widely recognized and sung than the original phrase. Martin made several other alterations, changing the song's focus to a celebration of present happiness, rather than anticipation of a better future.

Although the 1957 rewrite is the most familiar to listeners today, the Judy Garland lyrics have been recorded by a number of artists. The funniest and most endearing is on John Denver’s album, “A Christmas Together” where he sings a duet with Muppet character Rowlf the Dog.

For people out there who are unemployed and despondent, and for those worried they may be next, the (revised) song is a good reminder of what’s really important – home, friends, family. Even in the worst of times, if we can just have the spirit and the faith to “mudde through” those bad times, better days will come, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the moment. If we don’t lose hope, we won’t lose our way.

I was in the middle of decorating my Christmas tree, happy, singing along with the Christmas music, when I got the news, via e-mail, that two people I knew had died. But then I looked at a Christmas card someone had sent me of the nativity. Just Mary, Joseph and the star shining over the Baby Jesus. That card has greeted me every evening when I come home, after a very bad week at work, feeling helpless against co-workers’ machinations and hopeless that I’ll make it through another year, much less to retirement, which is still a daunting 15 years off.

Listening to Christmas music didn’t help. I couldn’t bring myself to turn on the tree. But as I was getting ready for bed, I passed the card again. There was a solace in its serenity, not cheerful, but at least consoling. He is above all these things of the earth, the futile wrestling for power, the intimidation, the anger, the shouting, the lying, the boasting, the back-biting, the calculating, the undermining, the scorn, the fear, the anxiety. We are like animals, grappling with one another in the dust of mortality. No wonder there’s no peace in the world.

Others can cast clouds over our Christmas cheer, so that we find no joy in a Christmas carol or brightly lit tree. But they can’t cast a cloud over The Nativity.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth - A Christmas Music Countdown

“Every body Pauses and stares at me
These two teeth are gone as you can see
I don't know just who to blame for this catastrophe!
But my one wish on Christmas Eve is as plain as it can be!”

Music teacher Donald Yetter Gardner asked his second grade glass in Smithtown, Long Island, what they wanted for Christmas. Most of them answered with a lisp. As he looked out over the children, he noticed almost all of them had at least one front tooth missing.

In 30 minutes, Gardner wrote the comic Christmas classic, “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.” According to Wikipedia, the song was published in 1948 after a Witmark Music Company employee heard Gardner sing it a music teachers conference.

The song was originally recorded by Spike Jones & His City Slickers on Dec. 6, 1948, with lead vocal by George Rock. The song reached the top of pop charts in 1949. The Numerous other singers singers and performers have recorded the holiday favorite, including George Strait, Danny Kaye with The Andrews Sisters, The Platters, Nat King Cole (reportedly Gardner's favorite version), The Chipmunks, the Hampton String Quartet, The Three Stooges and the cast of Sesame Street.

When I was about six, our mother decided to have formal portrait of us taken. The photographer came, but my mother had an issue; she didn’t want any of us to smile and show our prominent “family teeth.” We had an inherited our father’s teeth, not hers, and mine were missing at the time.

She was so angry, that we all wound up in tears. To this day, my older brother doesn’t smile with his mouth open, although a laugh will bring about a display of the “family teeth.”

As a photographer, I get subjects who are reluctant to smile, because their smiles aren’t photo-perfect. In general, most people dislike having their pictures taken, for a variety of reasons. One poor woman went running out of the studio crying. Then there are other subjects are commercial-perfect.

Getting children to smile, especially with Santa, is either a breeze or a battle. But whether they’re front teeth are missing or not, Christmas morning is one time when most children all over America will be smiling.

As they watch their little ones tear open their presents, adults will be smiling for another reason (besides the fact that there’s no more Christmas shopping to do), for the Child who made it all possible.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Marvelous Toy - A Christmas Music Countdown

“When I was just a wee little boy
Full of health and joy
My father gave to me one day
A marvelous little toy”
Tom Paxton

“The Marvelous Toy” was written by folk-song writer Thomas Richard Paxton. Born in 1937, when his father’s health failed, the family moved to Wickenburg, Ariz. Young Tom began riding horses and it was here that was first introduced to what would become known as “folk music.”
Wikiepedia says that in 1948, the Paxtons moved to Bristow, Okla. His father died of a stroke shortly after that. When Tom was 16, he received a guitar from his aunt, and he immersed himself in the music of Harry Belafonte.

He enrolled at the University of Oklahoma in 1955 to study drama. There, he found himself in the company of other folk music lovers, and discovered the music of Woody Guthrie, whose “fearlessness” he admired. Guthrie became one of Paxton’s greatest influences he and his group, The Travelers, began singing in off-campus coffeehouses. Tom’s first original song was “Robert,” an Elizabethan murder ballad.

After graduating from college in 1959 with a BFA, Paxton acted in summer stock theatre and briefly tried graduate school before joining the Army. While attending the Clerk Typist School in Fort Dix, N.J., he got “bored” (I can relate to that) and began writing songs on his typewriter and spent almost every weekend visiting Greenwich Village in New York City during the emerging early 1960s folk revival.

Shortly after his honorable discharge from the Army, Paxton auditioned for the Chad Mitchell Trio via publisher Milt Okun in 1960. He initially received the part, but his voice did not blend well enough with those of the other group members. However, after singing his song “The Marvelous Toy” for Okun, he became the first writer signed to Milt's music publishing company, Cherry Lane Music Publishing.

Tom soon began performing at The Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, where he became a mainstay. In 1962, he recorded a privately-produced live album at the Gaslight entitled, “I'm the Man That Built the Bridges.” During his stay in Greenwich Village, Tom published some of his songs in the folk magazines Broadside and Sing Out!, and performed alongside such folksingers as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Eric Andersen, Dave Van Ronk, and Mississippi John Hurt.

Of the songwriters on the Greenwich Village scene of the 1960s, Dave Van Ronk said, “Dylan is usually cited as the founder of the new song movement, and he certainly became its most visible standard-bearer, but the person who started the whole thing was Tom Paxton ... he tested his songs in the crucible of live performance, he found that his own stuff was getting more attention than when he was singing traditional songs or stuff by other people... he set himself a training regimen of deliberately writing one song every day.

Dylan had not yet showed up when this was happening, and by the time Bobby came on the set, with at most two or three songs he had written, Tom was already singing at least 50 percent his own material. That said, it was Bobby's success that really got the ball rolling. Prior to that, the folk community was very much tied to traditional songs, so much so that songwriters would sometimes palm their own stuff off as traditional.”

Not all of Paxton’s songs were so “marvelous” after that; they were heavily politicized, critical and negative. Only occasionally did he write something that would be considered “popular”. His “My Dog’s Bigger Than Your Dog,” went on, literally, to commercial success selling Ken-L-Ration dog food. In 2001, he recorded the album, Looking for the Moon which contains the song “The Bravest,” which is about the firefighters who gave their lives while trying to save others in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

Among the folk singers who sang song were Peter, Paul & Mary and John Denver. I also thought Mac Davis sang. That’s what I remember, anyway, although I can’t find any citations for it. I thought I remembered Mac Davis recording and hearing his version of it when I was a teenager. Since then, I have heard John Denver’s version; it’s on two of his Christmas Albums: “Christmas Like a Lullaby” and “Christmas Celebration in Concert.”

Both he and Davis do a “marvelous” job as the wistful dad giving the toy he got as a two or three year-old to his toddler, and the joy he had and watching the joy in his own son’s face.

When my brothers and I were children, it was the Space Age – the mid Sixties (about the time Paxton was writing protest songs and dog food jingles) - and our parents gave us a yellow spaceship that you could wind up. It was actually a gyroscope with hard plastic molding that was designed on the outside somewhat (though not exactly like) the Jupiter II from TV’s Lost in Space, which we were all great fans of.

The ship came with a metal key and red knob (which eventually fell off from enthusiastic use). We would insert the key and start winding. The gyro wound making this really cool, winding, metallic whirring sound that crescendoed as the speed built up.

When the crescendoing had peaked, we’d set the space ship down and it would spin and wind itself around the floor, like it had been launched into space. We just thought this was the greatest thing and we’d imagined we were “lost in space,” ready to explore other planets. The sound alone sent us into delighted ecstasies.

The spaceship is still at my mother’s house. My younger brother assures us it’s in a safe place. I think we’ll have to ask him to trot in out, now that it’s come to mind, so we can play with our marvelous time again. At some point, we’ll pass on to The Nephew, once we’re certain that he’s going to have a “little him (or her)” someday to pass our marvelous toy on to.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - A Christmas Music Countdown

God rest ye merry gentlemen,
May nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this Day.

“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is the un-merry Christmas carol. Wikipedia’s excellent musicologists tell us that is an English traditional Christmas carol. The melody is in a minor key and was published by William B. Sandys in 1833, although the author is unknown. There is a 1917 recording on the Wikipedia site. Bing Crosby recorded the song in 1945. Most recently, it was recorded by the cast of Glee.

Like so many early Christmas songs, this carol was written as a direct reaction to the music of the fifteenth century church. In Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. However, in the as-yet earliest known publication of the carol on a circa 1760 broadsheet, it is described as a “new Christmas carol,” suggesting its origin is actually in the mid-18th century. It appeared again among "new carols for Christmas" in another 18th-century source, a chapbook believed to be printed between 1780-1800. In 1833 it appeared in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern, a collection of seasonal carols gathered by William B. Sandys. The author is unknown.

It is referred to in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843): “ the first sound of — “God bless you merry, gentlemen! 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.”

There is some confusion today about the meaning of the first line, which seems archaic to our ears. It is usually given today as “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” with a comma after the word “merry,” so does not refer to “merry gentlemen.” “Rest” here denotes “keep or make.” The claim that “merry” once meant “mighty,” and is so used here is not supported by the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives sixteen definitions of the word, some going back to the 10th century, all having to do with pleasure or enjoyment. In both of the 18th-century instances, "you" was used instead of “ye,” suggesting that the latter may be a modern insertion to make the carol sound more quaintly archaic.

Sometime in the 1990’s, a college friend and I went into New York City to see Patrick Stewart’s one-man version of “A Christmas Carol.” He did a good job. We could only get standing-room-only tickets for the show. But we were still young, so it was okay. If I could do a five-mile parade, I could stand for a two-hour show.

As you see in the above citation from Dickens, Scrooge throws a ruler at the caroler who sings “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” At the end of Stewart’s performance, he sang the song to make amends for all of Scrooge’s wrong-doing:

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holytide of Christmas
All others doth deface:
O tidings of comfort and joy
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy.

The words, of course, are wonderful. The singing – well, we didn’t have any rulers handy.  Singing the words along with him would have been impolite and impolitic, given Stewart’s star status; my friend was worried we’d get thrown out. So, I hummed the song (softly!!!) instead, hoping the rest of the audience would get the idea. They did. From back to front, the audience hummed along with him until he stopped at the last lines. A hush fell over the audience. Uh-oh! We were all in big trouble.  Well, he did tell us to sing.

He looked around at the audience, smiled (I think he smiled; we were pretty far back), and finished the song (in key). We weren’t trying to insult his singing or anything. Given the season, it was just the – neighborly – thing to do.

The Twelve Days of Christmas - A Christmas Music Countdown

(Dear Readers:  I apologize for missing the countdown yesterday; I was feeling unwell.)

On the first day of Christmas
My true love gave to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

When we think of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” we tend to think of the 12 days before Christmas (which would have started yesterday). The Twelve Days of Christmas, according to Wikipedia, are the festive days beginning Christmas Day (Dec. 25). This period is also known as Christmastide. The Twelfth Day of Christmas is Jan. 5, with the celebrations of Christmas traditionally ending on The Twelfth Night, followed by the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. In some traditions, the first day of Epiphany and the twelfth day of Christmas overlap.

Over the centuries, different churches and sects of Christianity have changed the actual traditions, time frame, and their interpretations. St. Stephen's Day (or Boxing Day), for example, is Dec. 26 in the Western Church and Dec. 27 in the Eastern Church. Boxing Day, the first weekday after Christmas, is observed as a legal holiday in parts of the Commonwealth of Nations and was traditionally marked by the giving of Christmas boxes to service workers (such as postal workers and trades people) in the United Kingdom. Dec. 28 is Childermas or the Feast of the Innocents. Currently, the twelve days and nights are celebrated in widely varying ways around the world. For example, some give gifts only on Christmas Night, some only on Twelfth Night, and some each of the twelve nights.

In Eastern Christianity (the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches) the Great Feast of Theophany (Epiphany) on Jan. 6 is considered a higher-ranked feast than the Nativity (Christmas), and commemorates the Baptism of Jesus rather than the arrival of the Wise Men. The twelve days beginning on Dec. 25 are observed as a fast-free period of celebration. The Armenian Apostolic Church and the Armenian Catholic Church, however, observe the Nativity of Christ on Jan. 6, and thus do not have a 12-day period between Christmas and Jan. 5.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church (and those Eastern Catholic churches which follow the Byzantine Rite) The Great Feast of the Nativity of our Lord begins on the Eve of Dec. 25 (for those Orthodox churches which follow the Julian Calendar, Dec. 25 falls on Jan. 7 of the modern Gregorian Calendar).

The Twelve Days of Christmas are a festive period linking together two Great Feasts of the Lord: Nativity and Theophany. During this period one celebration leads into another. The Nativity of Christ is a three-day celebration: the formal title of the first day is “The Nativity According to the Flesh of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ,” and celebrates not only the Nativity of Jesus, but also the Adoration of the Shepherds of Bethlehem and the arrival of the Maji; the second day is referred to as the “Synaxis of the Theotokos,” and commemorates the role of the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation; the third day is known as the “Third Day of the Nativity,” and is also the feast day of the Protodeacon and Protomartyr Saint Stephen.

Dec. 29 is the Orthodox Feast of the Holy Innocents. The Afterfeast of the Nativity (similar to the Western octave) continues until Dec. 31 (that day is known as the Apodosis or “leave-taking” of the Nativity). The Saturday following the Nativity is commemorated by special readings from the Epistle (1 Tim 6:11-16) and Gospel (Matt 12:15-21) during the Divine Liturgy. The Sunday after Nativity has its own liturgical commemoration in honour of “The Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King and James the Brother of the Lord.”

Jan. 1, at the center of the festal period, is another feast of the Lord (though not ranked as a Great Feast): the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord. On this same day is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great, and so the service celebrated on that day is the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil. Jan. 2 begins the Forefeast of the Theophany. The Eve of the Theophany (Jan. 5) is a day of strict fasting, on which the devout will not eat anything until the first star is seen at night. This day is known as Paramony (“preparation”), and follows the same general outline as Christmas Eve. That morning is the celebration of the Royal Hours and then the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil combined with Vespers, at the conclusion of which is celebrated the Great Blessing of Waters, in commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.

There are certain parallels between the hymns chanted on Paramony and those of Good Friday, to show that, according to Orthodox theology, the steps that Jesus took into the Jordan River were the first steps on the way to the Cross. That night the All-Night Vigil is served for the Feast of the Theophany. In England in the Middle Ages, this period was one of continuous feasting and merrymaking, which climaxed on Twelfth Night, the traditional end of the Christmas season. In Tudor England, Twelfth Night itself was forever solidified in popular culture when William Shakespeare used it as the setting for one of his most famous stage plays, titled Twelfth Night. Often a Lord of Misrule was chosen to lead the Christmas revels.

Some of these traditions were adapted from the older pagan customs, including the Roman Saturnalia and the Germanic Yuletide. Some also have an echo in modern day pantomime where traditionally authority is mocked and the principal male lead is played by a woman, while the leading older female character, or “Dame,” is played by a man.

Many in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth nations still celebrate some aspects of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Boxing Day (Dec. 26) is a national holiday in many Commonwealth nations, being the first full day of Christmas. Victorian era stories by Charles Dickens (and others), particularly “A Christmas Carol,” hold key elements of the celebrations such as plum pudding, roasted goose and wassail (hot cider). While these foods are consumed more at the beginning of the Twelve Days in Great Britain, some dine and dance in the traditional way throughout, all the way to Twelfth Night.

Nowadays, the Twelfth Day is the last day for decorations to be taken down, and it is held to be bad luck to take decorations down after this date. This is in contrast to the custom in Elizabethan England, when decorations were left up until Candlemas; this is still done in some other Western European countries such as Germany.

With the onset of more Americanized and secular traditions throughout the past two centuries (such as the American Santa Claus), the rise in popularity of Christmas Eve itself as if it were also an actual holiday, and of New Year's Eve parties, the traditions of the Twelve Days of Christmas have been largely forgotten in the U.S.(We colonialists; we always have to do things differently). This is also heightened by the commercial practice to have after-Christmas sales begin on Dec. 26. Contemporary marketing and media tend to espouse the (erroneous) belief that the Twelve Days end on Christmas and thus begin Dec. 13.

However, a small percentage of Christians of many sects have held on to their own favorite ways to celebrate and those who choose to also have their own church to guide them in a spiritual way of marking this reverent holiday. Americans who celebrate in various ways include Christians of all backgrounds: Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Moravians and those of the Amish and Mennonite communities.

Today, some celebrants give gifts each of the Twelve Days, feast and otherwise celebrate the entire time through to Epiphany morning. Lighting a candle for each day has become a modern tradition in the U.S. and of course, singing the appropriate verses of the famous song each day is also an important and fun part of the American celebrations. Some still celebrate Twelfth Night as the biggest night for parties and gift-giving and some also light a Yule Log on the first night (Christmas) and let it burn some each of the twelve nights. Some Americans also have their own traditional foods to serve each night.

As in olden days, Twelfth Night to Epiphany morning is then the traditional time to take down the Christmas tree and decorations.

Myself, I take the decorations down on New Year’s Day. Really, the olde English tradition makes more sense, celebrating Christ’s birth after he’s born. We don’t celebrate the birth of children before they’re born; it’s bad luck. But we Americans are always in such a rush to do things.

But we still must tackle “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” the Christmas Carol, and it’s for the birds. Literally. Here’s Wikipedia’s information on the carol.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English Christmas carol that enumerates a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas. Although first published in England in 1780, textual evidence may indicate the song is French in origin.

Although the specific origins of the chant are not known, it possibly began as a Twelfth Night “memories-and-forfeits” game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet. This is how the game is offered up in its earliest known printed version, in the children's book Mirth without Mischief (c. 1780) published in England, which 100 years later Lady Gomme, a collector of folktales and rhymes, described playing every Twelfth Day night before eating mince pies and twelfth cake.

The song apparently is older than the printed version, though it is not known how much older. Textual evidence indicates that the song was not English in origin, but French, though it is considered an English carol. Three French versions of the song are known. If the “partridge in a pear tree” of the English version is to be taken literally, then it seems as if the chant comes from France, since the red-legged (or French) partridge, which perches in trees more frequently than the native common (or grey) partridge, was not successfully introduced into England until about 1770.

The earliest well-known version of the music of the song was recorded by English scholar James O. Halliwell in 1842, and he published a version in 4th edition The Nursery Rhymes of England (1846), collected principally from “oral tradition.” In the early 20th century, English composer Frederic Austin wrote an arrangement in which he added his melody from “five gold rings” onwards.  His version has since become standard. The copyright to this arrangement was registered in 1909 and is still active by its owners, Novello & Co. Limited.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by "my true love" on one of the twelve days of Christmas.

It has been suggested by a number of sources over the years that the pear tree is in fact supposed to be a perdrix, French for partridge and pronounced per-dree, and was simply copied down incorrectly when the oral version of the game was transcribed. The original line would have been: “A partridge, une perdrix.”

Some misinterpretations have crept into the English-language version over the years. The fourth day's gift is often stated as four “calling” birds but originally was four “colly” birds, or blackbirds. The fifth day's gift of gold rings refers not to jewelry but to ring-necked birds such as the ring-necked pheasant. When these errors are corrected, the pattern of the first seven gifts all being birds is restored. There is a version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that is still sung in Sussex in which the four calling birds are replaced by canaries.

In the west of France the piece is known as a song, "La foi de la loi," the sequence being: a good stuffing without bones, two breasts of veal, three joints of beef, four pigs' trotters, five legs of mutton, six partridges with cabbage, seven spitted rabbits, eight plates of salad, nine dishes for a chapter of canons, ten full casks, eleven beautiful maidens, and twelve musketeers with their swords.

In Scotland, early in the 19th century, the recitation began: “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,
A popingo-aye [parrot]; Wha learns my carol and carries it away?” The succeeding gifts were two partridges, three plovers, a goose that was grey, three starlings, three goldspinks, a bull that was brown, three ducks a-merry laying, three swans a-merry swimming, an Arabian baboon, three hinds (male deer) a-merry hunting, three maids a-merry dancing, and three stalks o' merry corn.

In Australia, a number of versions are sung, all of which replace the traditional gifts with items (mainly native animals) more likely to be found in that country.

The meaning of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," if it has any, has yet to be satisfactorily explained. According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, “Suggestions have been made that the gifts have significance, as representing the food or sport for each month of the year. Importance long been attached to the Twelve Days, when, for instance, the weather on each day was carefully observed to see what it would be in the corresponding month of the coming year. Nevertheless, whatever the ultimate origin of the chant, it seems probable the lines that survive today both in England and France are merely an irreligious travesty.”

A bit of modern folklore claims that the song's lyrics were written as a “catechism song” to help young Catholics learn their faith, at a time when practicing Catholicism was discouraged in England (1558 until 1829). Variations in lyrics provide evidence against the “catechism song” origin. For example, the four Gospels are often described as the “four calling birds,” when in fact the phrase “calling birds” is a modern (probably 20th century) phonetic misunderstanding of “colly birds.”

As befitting a song honoring Twelfth Night, there have been many parodies of the song including:

• Green Chri$tma$, by Stan Freberg
• The Twelve Gifts of Christmas, by Allan Sherman
• The 12 Days of Christmas Local Style, written in 15 minutes by Eaton "Bob" Magoon Jr.'s, Ed Kenney and Gordon Phelps, as the three friends ate Chinese food in the living room of a Diamond Head home in 1959.
• The Thrifty Spendthrift, first appeared in the February edition of Walt Disney's monthly "Uncle $crooge.”
• The Twelve Days of Christmas, by John Denver and the Muppets
• The Twelve Days of Christmas, by Bob & Doug McKenzie—Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, of Second City TV Fame, on their spin-off album Great White North.
• The Redneck 12 Days of Christmas, by Jeff Foxworthy
• Elmo's 12 Days of Christmas by Sarah Albee.

Three french fries, two yummy cookies, and the writers in the Public Affairs Tree.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Angels from the Realms of Glory - A Christmas Music Countdown

“Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great desire of nations,
Ye have seen His natal star;
Come and worship,
Come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!”

Angels from the Realms of Glory, 3rd Stanza

When I was still in my teens, I started collecting angels. Good angels, naturally, of all sorts. Big angels with glorious costumes of velvet and fur, satin and feathers, beads and jewels. Treetop angels that lit up brightly. Angels all in white. Angels in various shades of blue, gold, silver, lavender, and pink. Little angels with cheery faces. Somber angels with musical instruments.

After awhile, I found I had no room for any more, nor the finances, for that matter, so I stopped collecting them about 15 or 20 years ago, although now and then I’ll see an angel that turns my head. I would always go shopping for them the Day After Christmas, at the half-price sales. So today, I shall pay tribute to my angel collection and all the real angels who’ve been watching over me these many years.

“Angels from the Realms of Glory” is a Christmas carol written by poet James Montgomery, born in 1771.

According to Wikipedia: His parents were missionaries who died spreading The Word. His poem was first printed in the Sheffield Iris on Christmas Eve 1816, though it only began to be sung in churches after its 1825 reprinting in the Montgomery collection The Christian Psalmist and in the Religious Tract Society's The Christmas Box or New Year's Gift.

Before 1928, the hymn was sung to a variety of tunes, including “Regent Square,” “Lewes” by John Randall, and “Wildersmouth” or “Feniton Court” by Edward Hopkins. In the United States, the hymn is today most commonly sung to the tune of "Regent Square" by Henry Smart. In the United Kingdom, however, the hymn came to be sung to the French carol tune “Iris” (Les anges dans nos campagnes, the tune used for “Angels We Have Heard on High”) after this setting was published in the Oxford Book of Carols, except that the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” refrain is sung in place of Montgomery's original “Come and worship Christ the new-born King” refrain.

Montgomery, who was particularly associated with humanitarian causes such as the campaigns to abolish slavery and to end the exploitation of child chimney sweeps, was born at Irvine in Ayrshire, England. His father was the pastor and missionary of the Moravian Brethren.  James was sent to be trained for the ministry at the Moravian School at Fulneck, near Leeds, while his parents left for the West Indies, where both died within a year of each other. At Fulneck, secular studies were banned, but James nevertheless found means of borrowing and reading a good deal of poetry and made ambitious plans to write epics of his own. Failing school, he was apprenticed to a baker in Mirfield, then to a store-keeper at Wath-upon-Dearne.

After further adventures, including an unsuccessful attempt to launch himself into a literary career in London, he moved to Sheffield in 1792 as assistant to Joseph Gales, auctioneer, bookseller and printer of the Sheffield Register, who introduced Montgomery into the local Lodge of Oddfellows. In 1794, Gales left England to avoid political prosecution and Montgomery took the paper in hand, changing its name to the Sheffield Iris.

These were times of political repression and he was twice imprisoned on charges of sedition. The first time was in 1795 for printing a poem celebrating the fall of the Bastille; the second in 1796 was for criticizing a magistrate for forcibly dispersing a political protest in Sheffield. (Clearly, the Crown did not regard Montgomery as an angel, nor he, them.) Turning the experience to some profit, in 1797 he published a pamphlet of poems written during his captivity as Prison Amusements. For some time, The Iris was the only newspaper in Sheffield; but beyond the ability to produce fairly creditable articles from week to week, Montgomery was devoid of the journalistic faculties which would have enabled him to take advantage of his position. Other newspapers arose to fill the place which his might have occupied and in 1825 he sold it to local bookseller John Blackwell.

Meanwhile, Montgomery was continuing to write poetry and achieved some fame with The Wanderer of Switzerland in 1806. The poem addressed the French annexation of Switzerland and quickly went through two editions. When it was denounced the following year in the conservative Edinburgh Review as a poem that would be speedily forgotten, Lord Byron came to its defense in the satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Nevertheless, within 18 months, a fourth impression of 1,500 copies was issued from the very presses that had printed the critique and several more were to follow.

This success brought Montgomery a commission from the printer Bowyer to write a poem on the abolition of the slave trade, to be published along with other poems on the subject in a handsome illustrated volume. The subject appealed at once to the poet's philanthropic enthusiasm and to his own touching associations with the West Indies. The four-part poem in heroic couplets appeared in 1809 as The West Indies.

Montgomery also used heroic couplets for The World Before the Flood (1812). Following this he turned to attacking the lottery in Thoughts on Wheels (1817) and taking up the cause of the chimney sweeps' apprentices in The Climbing Boys' Soliloquies. His next major poem was Greenland (1819). This piece was prefaced by a description of the ancient Moravian church, its 18th century revival and mission to Greenland in 1733. The poem was noted for the beauty of its descriptions.

After retiring from newspaper editorship, Montgomery's only other long poem was The Pelican Island (1828). But Montgomery himself expected that his name would live, if at all, in his hymns. Some of these, such as “Hail to the Lord's Anointed,” “Prayer is the Soul's Sincere Desire” and the carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory,”, are still sung. The earliest of his hymns dates from his days in Wath on Dearne and he added to their number over the years. The main boost came when the Rev. James Cotterill arrived at the parish church (now the cathedral) in 1817. He had compiled and published “A Selection of Psalms and Hymns Adapted to the Services of the Church of England” in 1810. But to his disappointment and concern, he found that his new parishioners did not take kindly to using it. He therefore enlisted the help of James Montgomery to help him revise the collection and improved it by adding some hymns of the poet's own composition.

This new edition, meeting with the approval of the Archbishop of York (and eventually of the parishioners of St Paul’s), was finally published in 1820. In 1822, Montgomery published his own “Songs of Zion: Being Imitations of Psalms,” the first of several more collections of hymns. During his life he composed some 400, although less than a hundred are current today.

From 1835 until his death, Montgomery lived at The Mount on Glossop Road in Sheffield. He was very well regarded in the city and played an active part in its philanthropic and religious life. Following his death in 1854, he was honored by a public funeral and in 1861 a monument was erected over his grave in the Sheffield cemetery at the cost of £1,000, raised the Sheffield Sunday School Union, of which he was among the founding members. On its granite pedestal is inscribed 'Here lies interred, beloved by all who knew him, the Christian poet, patriot, and philanthropist. Wherever poetry is read, or Christian hymns sung, in the English language, 'he being dead, yet speaketh' by the genius, piety and taste embodied in his writings.'

May the Angels watch over you and yours this Christmas season!