Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Since today is New Year's Eve, and since the New Year was one of the times given to wassailing, I am posting a song that falls, at least part way into that tradition. It is actually bits of three songs, arranged as one by Peter, Paul and Mary, and which they call A Soalin'.

There are actually three traditions combined here, as well as three songs - there is an old custom, of which I was completely unaware, called souling, in which people would go from door to door on All Souls Day (November 2nd), to sing and pray for the dead, and in return, they would be giving a soul cake The modern custom of trick-or-treating is thought to come from this older tradition. It is very similar to the wassailing traditions, which could take place any time between harvest, to just before early planting, which would be around February, although, it was strongly associated with the New Year. And with God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman tagged on at the end, we've come to the familiar caroling tradition, which we practice now. There is a bit more information to be found here.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Candlelight Carol

While old songs with a bit of history attached to them are particularly nice, and are probably my favourite sort of music, sometimes a really lovely modern song turns up, which is every bit as fine and satisfying. Candlelight Carol is just such a song. It was written in 1984 by John Rutter, and has been covered by numerous artists, but I only heard it for the first time this year, sung by the Welsh tenor, Aled Jones, and I have become immensely fond of it:

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Scottish Christmas

Well, it is very like me to propose to post daily, and then to become too busy to follow through with it. So today, to sort of catch  up a wee, I am posting two songs - Scottish carols, both of them, one translated from the Gaelic, and one in Scots.

By now, it should come as no surprise to anyone, that I am terribly fond of Christmas - and of history, and traditions and folk-customs - all of which interests come together so beautifully at this time of year, that I tend to spend rather a lot of time in delighted research. Some Christmas traditions are practically universal - the appearance of the St. Nicholas/Father Christmas figure for example - others are peculiar to certain nations - such as the Irish practice of placing a lighted candle in the window to guide the Holy Family to shelter, should they be in need of it. I find it all tremendously interesting. 

Scotland is sort of the odd man out as far as Christmas traditions go. A cursory search on the matter will provide you with the rather sad information that Christmas as a national holiday is a surprisingly recent development in that country; that Christmas was pretty much treated as an ordinary day until about the 50's; that it was the New Year's celebrations that people really observed. It takes a bit of digging to find out that this is only true as far as it goes. Before the Reformation, Scotland marked Christmastide with as much ceremony and celebration as the rest of Europe did. Then John Knox showed up, and while later came Cromwell and the Covenanters, and for a time the celebration of Christmas was against the law throughout all the United Kingdom. However, there always were little groups of people who continued to keep Christmas anyway - in secret, but as fully and as joyfully as could be managed. Eventually, the law was repealed, and in England, the celebration of it was observed with renewed enthusiasm.

That was not the case in Scotland, however. New Year's Day was observed, but the only people who celebrated Christmas, for the longest time, were the Catholics, and some of the more 'papish' sort of Protestant denominations. It is hard to find out too much more about it. The impression one gets is that it was what we would now term a 'fringe' phenomenon. However, I found this very lovely Christmas card from the Great War, from the Cameron Highlanders, so it can't have been all so small as all that:

From the collection of Rev. William White Anderson,
St. Cuthbert's, Edinburgh
And both the carols I am posting are from the time in which Christmas was officially not celebrated. The first, The Christ Child Lullaby was originally written in Gaelic during the 19th century and sung during Midnight Mass in the Outer Hebrides. The version I first heard was sung by The Boys of the Lough, and had some really great bass harmonies going for it, but alack and alas, that version is all but impossible to find in any form whatsoever. This is quite nice, though, so you are getting this version instead:

Balulalow, is quite an old carol by comparison. It was translated from German into Scots by the Wedderburn brothers during the 16th century, which puts it squarely during the Reformation. I only heard this song for the first time a few years back, and was immensely taken with it:

Thursday, December 26, 2013

On the Second Day of Christmas

When I was little,  we mostly listened to the sort of Christmas music which, for lack of a better term, I shall call the classics - you know, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, popular carols by the best popular singers of the century. Good music, all of it, and all very familiar. I liked it then, and I am still very fond of most of it. - it wouldn't seem like Christmas without them. However, The first time I heard Gesu Bambino, it was something of a revelation to me. It is an old song, but it was new to me, and the lyrics, being fresh and original, struck me with particular poignancy. In the oddly affecting way of music, it made me feel almost as if I were hearing the story of Christ's birth again for the first time. I was hugely taken with it, and for the longest time, it was my absolute favourite carol, hands down. I cannot say that it single-handedly shaped my taste in Christmas music, but it certainly helped, and it was my first introduction into that vast body of songs, both ancient and modern, which the sheer beauty of Christmas inspires. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Past Three O'Clock, On A Cold and Frosty Morning....

Merry Christmas to us, one and all!

Most years around Christmas, I start a series of posts about various Advent and Twelve Days of Christmas customs. This year, I have mostly neglected my poor blog, however, I sort of intend to make up for it by posting lesser known Christmas songs for each day of the season of Christmas. They are songs that I like particularly, and are usually songs that made an impression on me the first time I heard them. Today, being Christmas, I am going to post two songs which have very little in common, but both are singularly joyous feeling of both:

My family likes to attend Midnight Mass whenever possible, and the nearest Latin Mass for us often involves a 2 hour drive down the mountains and foothills, and into the city. We'd leave at about 9:30 in the evening to get there in time, and we would seldom get home before 4:00 in the morning. I have an old, and much loved tape of Christmas music, ranging from Medieval carols, sung by choirs, to traditional old songs, played on fiddles and bagpipes. I always listened to that tape during the drive, and as often as not, as we left the city and began to climb into the mountains, this song would cycle through... and there are few things more beautiful than driving in the cold, pure winter night, beneath a black velvet sky, thick with stars that glitter with unbelievable brilliance upon the heaped up snows. And if this song is making a soundtrack to the drive, so much the better. It could just be that the wee sma' hours of the morning turn the most prosaic of us into poets, but those early morning drives, shot through with the lingering benediction of Midnight Mass seem to have a touch of heaven itself to them.

And I would often listen to this one too. It is not so beautiful as the first, but it reminds me rather of the way we celebrate Christmas - Mass and feasting, the very essence of a proper Christmas celebration:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Get the Champagne - Today is an Anniversary!

I suppose it is a mark of just how much of a nerd I am, that I am terribly excited to discover, via the Google Doodle, that today marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the crossword puzzle. Yes, I actually do crossword puzzles regularly. I have a huge book of New York Times puzzles that I've been working on for a couple years. I have several smaller books of wordplay games, which I carry about. I am terribly fond of Bananagrams. At present, Google has a crossword puzzle up for you to play with it you want to. And I, to celebrate, shall bestow upon you all, the following bits of trivia about crosswords.

1.) The first crossword puzzle was published in the Sunday New York World - and was created by a Liverpudlian named Arthur Wynne.

2.) Crossword puzzles are based of an older children's game of word square, in which words were entered into a grid, so that the words can be read both horizontally and vertically. For example:

Word squares is, in turn, believed to have come from a Latin tradition, based on carved examples of what is knows as the Sator Square:

File:Sator Square at Oppède.jpg

3.) A crossword puzzle published in the Daily Telegraph was used as a recruiting device by the British Secret Service during WWII. I can't remember which book I read, about Bletchley Park and the breaking of the Nazi's Enigma Code, which had a reprint of the puzzle in it. Potential recruits had to finish it in 12 minutes, and I was only halfway through by that time. However, I shall point out that British crosswords are considerably different from the American puzzles I am used to - there is a lot of punning wordplay involved. Here is one of the clues for an example:

4ac - The direct route preferred by the Roundheads. 

The answer is a short cut. Because, you see, the Roundheads were given that nickname on account of their hair, which was cut very short by the standards of the time, and a short cut is usually the most direct route. So there you are. 

4.) Crosswords became part of WWII history again during the top secret Allied preparations for the D-Day invasions. A number of code words for the operation showed up as answers to the puzzle, causing fears of leaked information. It turned out to be mostly a co-incidence, however. The puzzle's creator had overheard soldiers using some of the words, but since they sounded so harmless - mulberry surely could not mean anything could it? - he had no idea that it was code. 

5.) Although crosswords became a regular feature of most papers during the 1910's, the word crossword did not enter the dictionaries until 1930

Finally, here is a copy of the original crossword puzzle, in case anyone wants to get in on the fun, as solve it.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas Is Coming...

.... The goose is getting fat.... But we are not quite at Christmas, yet. It is still the season of Advent. 

I love Advent, almost as much as I love Christmas - oh, sure, it is a time of fasting and penance, but Advent is a preparation for the birth of the Christ Child, and the feeling that comes with it is the same sort of suppressed excitement that a household experiences in the days before a baby's birth - that getting-ready, slightly impatient anticipation. Advent, for all the self-denial associated with it, is fun.

And beautiful. There's the Advent Wreath, for example:


The Advent Wreath comes out on the fourth Sunday before Christmas - in all its splendour of evergreens and candles. Every day, before dinner, we light a candle - or two, or three, or four, depending on the week - say a little prayer, and sing, O Come, O Come Emmanuel. I love it.

And let's not forget the Nativity set which comes out when the Advent Wreath does. It is just the stable at first, with one or two of the animals. More figures are added as the season progresses. Mary and Joseph go in on Christmas eve, and the Baby goes in first thing in the morning Christmas day. 

When I was younger, we had an empty crib for Mom's beautiful little statue of the Baby Jesus. We'd cut thin little strips of yellow construction paper into straw, and every time one of us kids would do an act of virtue, we could place straw in the crib, so that He would be comfortable when He came. I don't do it now, though my room mate sister has a wee crib very similar to my Mom's and it is waiting for the coming of the Christ Child, just as the rest of us are:

And now.... I go. Here is a lovely arrangement of O Come Emmanuel by the Piano Guys. If I ever come across a sung version of the song that I like well enough to post, I will, but in the meantime, this is quite nice:

 PS. I am behind on all my blog-following, and blog-commenting. I apologise. I do have a reason, which I shall not bore anyone with. Suffice it to say that there is a doctor involved, and bed rest, and that my mind seems to flit off on its own rather more than is usual for it. I shall try to be better.... anon....