Yule Tune: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (Various Artists)

When it comes to Christmas carols, I tend to be a traditionalist.  I like them the old-fashioned way — with choirs and organs.  When today’s performers sing them, I become Simon Cowell, bristling at their renditions, at their making the carol their own.  I mean, why mess with perfection?

It is the rare occasion, however, when I appreciate — no, make that love — a newer version.

Take, for example, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”  I think I enjoy the carol so much because it’s intertwined with one of my favorite Christmas stories and films, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.   When I hear the tune, I’m bundled up and walking down the snowy streets of Dickensian London.  (For the record, my favorite film version is from 1951 and stars Alastair Sim.)

Here is a traditional performance, by the choirs of Bath and  Winchester cathedrals.

And now for a more modern take, the finger-snapping, foot-tapping version by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlin.

Yule Tune: Merry Christmas, Baby (Natalie Cole)

It’s Friday night, and you’re remembering last week’s walk home. It was a cold, blustery night when you discovered a small gem of a jazz club.

Tonight is different.  It’s warm for December — practically balmy.  And your overdressed for it because this morning it was cold and you thought it wise to participate in the company’s ugly Christmas sweater day.

Now that you’re on your walk home in the December humidity, you’ve had to remove your overcoat.  Your hat fell out of the coat pocket a few blocks back.  And you’re mind is drifting to that jazz club, wondering who will be taking the stage tonight.

As if conjured up from your mind, the jazz club is in front of you.  You walk in and are greeted by the same tatted coat check girl who’s wearing the same short red dress with faux white fur trim.  This time, though, her platinum hair is pulled back and gathered in a ponytail — but her lips are still painted red to match the dress.  She winks at you, the same way she winks at all of the regulars.

The orchestra is already on stage and the singer, dressed all in white, sits on a stool near the piano.  The first notes play and you’re struck because you never knew a Christmas carol could be so soulful and sexy.

Yule Tune: Christmas Alphabet (The McGuire Sisters)

This very sweet Christmas carol is sweeter than a Christmas cookie — so sweet, in fact,  that you’ll need an ice cold glass of milk to wash it down.   The McGuire Sisters — the same sister act that sang “Sincerely” — are the voices behind  “Christmas Alphabet.”

Oh, and after listening, remember to brush your teeth.

Yule Tune: Here We Come A-wassailing (Orla, David, Meav, & Mark)

At a recent Christmas dinner — an annual tradition for Joe and me to get together with friends Cathey and Robert and Judy and Michael — there was a brief discussion about the Christmas carols that never get airplay on those Christmas 24/7 radio stations.

There are, in fact, lots of carols that never see the light of day, much less a turntable.  Among them is “Here We Come A-wassailing.”   Perhaps the carol fell out of popularity because, sadly, people really don’t go a-wassailing — or a-caroling — anymore.

A few centuries ago, in England, locals would go door-to-door singing Christmas carols, hoping for some food, a penny, or a drink from the homeowner’s wassail bowl, which usually held a brew of hot ale, apples, mead, and spices — just enough alcohol to warm up the wassailers.

During my own childhood, I have memories of neighborhood teenagers knocking on the front door and singing Christmas carols — and my parents would give them some money and Christmas cookies.  Today, though, caroling seems to be relegated to indoor locations and radio stations. Door-to-door caroling is a thing of Christmas past — perhaps because of lack of time, lack of energy, or an abundance of fear.

And that’s really a shame — because “Here We Come A-wassailing” is catchy and bouncy and rousing.  It’s a carol that’s built for radio play.  Don’t believe me?  Click play and listen to Orla and Meav of Celtic Woman, “American Idol” alumna David Archuleta, country singer Mark Wills, some fiddles, and the bodhran, or Irish drum.

Yule Tune: Adeste Fideles (Luciano Pavarotti)

Long before trios of tenors toured the globe, there was Luciano Pavarotti.  There was also this 1978 performance at Montreal’s Notre Dame Cathedral.  I was a young teenager when this Christmas special aired on television, and it was my first exposure to opera.  From the opening note, I was mesmerized and moved by the passion and richness of Pavarotti’s voice, and of the cathedral itself.  Somehow, the combination of the two makes “Adeste Fideles” seem even more holy.

Yule Tune: Holiday Grab Bag (Lawrence Welk & Perry Como)

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic tonight — probably because each Sunday night, I’m aways reminded of family dinners at my grandmother’s house in Queens, NY.  Once all of the dishes were hand-washed and dried, we used to sit in the living room (on the sofa and floor) to watch “The Wonderful World of Disney,” “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, ” and “The Lawrence Welk Show.”  If I remember correctly, there was a lot of eye rolling at that last show, but something has changed in the passing decades.

Looking back at the clips, there is something rather sweet and, yes, comical about the show.  Maybe it’s the familiar faces or the corniness or the remembered aromas of my grandmother’s cooking, but Mr. Welk and crew certainly brings a smile to my face.

And if that wasn’t enough nostalgia for one night, how about this one from Perry Como.  Pay attention to the pop-ups and remember to wait for Santa Claus.

I couldn’t let this post end without one last moment with Lawrence Welk.

Yule Tune: White Christmas (Diana Krall)

Autumn Joy in Snow

Autumn Joy in snow.

This morning, I woke up to snow — and while I may not be a fan of the white stuff, even I must admit that there is something exciting, something magical about snow at this time of year.

Ivy in Snow

Ivy in snow.

On Long Island, a white Christmas is always iffy.  More often than not, if there should be any snow, it’s usually washed away by rain or a burst of mild temperatures.  Our snowy time arrives after Christmas.  Still, the iffiness does nothing to dampen our hope and excitement that this year we will have a “White Christmas.”

Pebbles in snow.

Pebbles in snow.

While many performers have put their own stamp on this Christmas standard, I’m always drawn to Diana Krall’s version.  Her voice, sultry and intimate, feels like a warm blanket — kind of like the one that’s wrapped around me right now, as I watch sugary powder dust and cover everything.

Bench in snow.

Bench in snow.

Oak leaf  in snow.

Oak leaf in snow.

Hydrangea in snow.

Hydrangea in snow.

Chair in snow.

Chair in snow.

Oak leaves looking like cookies dusted with sugar.

Oak leaves looking like cookies dusted with sugar.

Yule Tune: The Christmas Song (Ella Fitzgerald)

Snow on leaves

It’s been a beast of a week.  After locking up your office, you’ve bundled yourself against the cold.

Clutching your coat tight around your chest, you make your way home, grumbling about the piles from yesterday’s snowfall and how the city’s grime has already turned winter white into a dull gray.

If there could be any good fortune on a night like this, it’s that the buildings on the cross street are blocking the winter wind.  The wind, you realize, is just a few yards away, waiting for you to turn the corner.

You’ve reached the end of the street and it’s time to walk uptown.  You brace yourself, but it doesn’t do any good.  The northwest wind slaps you full across the face, squeezing frozen tears from your eyes.  You worry that it’s not just nipping at your nose, but gripping it and ripping it, as well.

Stray pages of some newspaper become wrapped around your legs, as you lean into winter, hunching up your shoulders and sinking in your neck, a gloved hand pressing your scarf to your nose and mouth.  You’re thinking you need an oasis — a bit of warmth in this frozen urban land.

And there it is, sitting in the shadows between the glow of two streetlights.  You’ve walked this route hundreds of time and can’t recall seeing this place, now decorated with a string of colored lights and a wreath.

You step inside to a muted interior and all at once you’re in 2013 and 1953.  The coat check girl, platinum hair swept up in a retro ‘do and tattooed shoulders above a glittery red dress with white faux fur trim, smiles at you with painted red lips.  As she takes your coat, she says, “Why, you’re just in time for the first act.”

It takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dark and smoky interior, to take in the assorted souls at the bar and seated at small tables close to the stage.  You find a place and ask for a drink.

The band steps out, and the first notes sound familiar — a carol performed by so many.  A woman steps up to the microphone — and very soon, her voice is as warm and velvety and soothing as the amber liquid in your glass.

I wonder who will be taking the stage

tomorrow night?

Yule Tune: The Holly & The Ivy (King’s College Choir, Cambridge)

Holly and Ivy

We’re at the halfway point in our Yule Tune odyssey and I thought I would take a look at a very moving carol, “The Holly And The Ivy.”  It’s so moving that I placed it into the category: “Carols That I Love Even Though I Don’t Know The Words.”

In my head, the song sounds something like this: “The holly and the ivy. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm. Hmmm.”  My intention was to locate the lyrics and print them with pictures of, well, holly and ivy.  A simple, no-nonsense post —  until I began the research and uncovered a complicated history of the carol.

To make a long story short, the lyrics are full of controversy and symbolism.  Well before Christianity entered the world stage, early peoples honored the winter months by decorating their homes with evergreens, including holly and ivy.  In fact, ivy was often associated with the Roman god Bacchus, and holly was part of Saturnalia celebrations.  Early Christian leaders tried to change pagan traditions, but they were eventually incorporated into the new religion.

As the lyrics evolved, they became symbolic of Christ’s life.  They also reflected earlier carols that described the battle of the sexes, with the masculine holly challenging the feminine ivy for supremacy.  With very little mention of ivy in the carol, it would seem that holly has won the battle — or is this just another example of the feminine being suppressed by the masculine, which is the basis for a little novel called The DaVinci Code.

Like I said, all I really wanted was a simple post.  Instead, I have a complicated one, as well as a complicated carol.  It’s probably why, now that I think of it, I have a complicated relationship with both of these plants.  I love them.  I hate them.  I love them.

Let me first say that I have ivy growing everywhere: spreading along the ground, rambling on and over fencing, climbing up trees.  I love its lush appearance and its ability to make a wall of green.  But that’s where the love-fest ends.  Ivy does not have low maintenance in its vocabulary.  It plays a huge role in my gardening life as I hack, prune, and yank it to keep it within bounds as it spreads, rambles, and climbs.  And let’s not even talk about the time I had to clean out an ivy-filled area to create a perennial garden.  Bah, humbug — indeed!

Then, there is the holly.  I have a variegated type, and Joe and I have moved it around the yard at least twice.  I hate to part with it, because I do like the leaves — especially at this time of year, when we cut sprigs and bring them into the house.  The thing about holly, though, is that it lulls you into a false sense of security.  Just when you  think it’s lovely, it’s time to do some spring cleaning, and inevitably, I get stuck by the spiny edges of the leaves.  Over and over and over again.  The rest of that gardening day has me muttering something like, “The f%(#*&(n holly and the f&^%%$&n ivy. Hmmm.  Hmmm. Hmmm.  Hmmm.”

At this point, it’s probably best that I let those who know the words — and who can sing it far better than I — show you why it is one of the most beautiful carols ever written.