Perhaps you felt, after last week’s little foray into holiday music, that we were done with that topic for another year. Perhaps you even breathed a sigh of relief. Well, brace yourselves, because it’s time for one more eye-rolling look at stuff we sing without having a clue why.
Three songs in the post-Christmas pantheon deserve some scrutiny. While none of them are carols in the traditional sense, all of them crop up at Christmas, and we sing them happily without the least idea what we’re singing. First on the list, “Good King Wenceslas. “
This catchy little tune involves some Czechoslovakian person named Wenceslas, who looked out on the Feast of St. Stephen and saw a poor beggar picking up sticks. Moved by the contrast between the two of them, Wenceslas summons his page, and they stomp off into the snow to deliver goodies to the poor guy, who probably had violent dyspepsia.
St. Stephen’s day is the second day of Christmas in the Catholic and Anglican liturgical calendars, Dec. 26. Stephen was, of course, the first Christian martyr, stoned in the first century A.D. , and prior to his stoning, was known as a deacon who helped take care of widows within the early church.
This might explain why he’s the patron saint of Boxing Day, a day set aside for boxing up one’s leftovers and old but still serviceable stuff and giving it to the poor. (This is not, as has been rumored in America, the day for boxing up stuff to return to the store.)
Wenceslas was a duke who died in 937 and was made a king and a saint posthumously for his pains, which must have been agonizing. Somebody wrote a poem inspired by Wenceslas’ famed generosity, and stole a tune for it. Since St. Stephen’s Day is right next to Christmas Day, the song appeared in Christmas collections. Now you know.
And you also have a hint about the next tune to make us nuts, the endlessly repetitive “Twelve Days of Christmas.” These are the days between Christmas (Dec. 25) and Epiphany (Jan. 6), of which St. Stephen’s Day is the second, remember.
The song revolves around some poor boob whose true love burdens him, or her, with a retinue of drummers, pipers, leaping lords, dancing ladies, and milkmaids, plus a flock of various birds and some jewelry. Perhaps the recipient of all this largesse had to hock the rings to pay for feeding everyone else?
People have tried to retrofit coded references to Jesus and Biblical history into the song, but alas, it predates any such references by about 300 years. It was French to start with, and probably was one of those party games where the next singer in line had to remember all the junk that came before.
Its carol-value is even less than “Good King Wenceslas,” but not as low as our final candidate.
The all-time, do-you-even-know-what-this-means holiday song has got to be the one slurred by every tipsy New Year’s Eve reveler, “Auld Lang Syne.”
If the Scots have a national saint other than Andrew, it’s likely to be Robbie Burns, the one man who brought the incomprehensible Scottish brogue into international prominence. (And remember, my ancestors were Scots, so I know whom I’m insulting here. If you think Scots speak English, you dinna ken ower muckle havers, and mu’ dree thy own weird. )
Robbie claimed he was writing down an old folk song, and the first verse probably is, but the rest of it is pure Burns.
Scotland glommed onto the poem as it did all things Burns, and now “Auld Lang Syne” is intoned at the end of every true Burns Dinner. The name means “Old Long Since” but can be more accurately translated, “the long gone years.” It’s not cheerful. Of course, if you’ve just washed down a lot of haggis with Scotch whiskey, you don’t want cheerful.
The point is, people sing it as though it means something like “the good old days,” which it most assuredly does not. An Englishman named James Watson made up some “English” words for it, but they’re not a translation of the original AT ALL.
Mostly, it’s about being separated from one’s friends by age and distance, and let’s have a drink and forget about how much that hurts. We sing it lustily at midnight on New Year’s Eve, but it might be a lot more appropriate delivered with some aspirin at eight o’clock the next morning.