Thursday, November 20, 2008

Christmas Carols versus Christmas Songs

It's that time of year again when scores of Christmas carols and songs begin to bombard our ears, not only over the radio and in malls, but so too inside elevators, doctors' offices, and even through telephone hold music. But what constitutes the difference between a Christmas carol and a Christmas song?

Ultra-talented keyboardist Palan Reyes used to warn us ignorant choir members to make no mistake: Christmas carols and Christmas songs are a breed apart. Of course he was referring to the common error of confusing sacred Christmas hymns for contemporary holiday tunes. It is easy after all to commit poor judgment these days as the term "carols" is now often used to denote generic Christmas music.

In truth, however, "carol" comes from the French word "carole," or a circle dance. As such, musicologists in the past were quick to define carols as songs with verses and repeating choruses used in dancing, not only during Christmas but also in other holidays. Still, the great divide between Christmas carols and songs is really more about the content of the lyrics than it is about the song form.

Yuletide carols are those that reflect the poignant spirituality that shapes the core of our celebration. They are religious in nature, and refer to the miracle of the season--the Christ-Child, the Virgin-birth, the God-with-us. O, HOLY NIGHT and JOY TO THE WORLD are fine examples. Christmas songs are secular in thought and style, often about holiday fun, kids and gifts, romance during the season. Check out WHITE CHRISTMAS or even RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER. Oh, and then there are Winter songs that speak of the season (snow and all) with no reference to the holiday or to the religious celebration--like LET IT SNOW or WINTER WONDERLAND.

But what about songs like AVE MARIA? Palan often smirks at the thought of the this being passed off as a carol. Though the Visitation event is closely associated with Christmas, the song AVE MARIA is a prayer set to music. Then there are the trickier ones--LITTLE DRUMMER BOY and DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR, for instance. Christmas carol or song? They do refer to some religious aspects of the celebration but have a more secular message, don't they?  I guess the debate goes on....

Good friend and song collaborator Jandi Arboleda received the biggest shock of his life when a choir in the Simbang Gabi he attended sang as a processional hymn, FROSTY THE SNOWMAN. At least I am not that ignorant.

Here are two of my favorite pieces of Christmas music these days. Swingle Singers's version of the Christmas carol, SILENT NIGHT and a more recent find, Amy Grant's Christmas song with a contemporary essence, I NEED A SILENT NIGHT. May we all enjoy peaceful times this Yuletide.

1 comment:

Jim Marsh said...

Thanks for the information. I'm doing my usual recording of Christmas "music" and decided the CD would be be "carols and songs" for 2015.