13 December 2012

The Carols We Love

The Carols We Love is Missing a lot of Passion
By Kristin Battestella

Originally published as Sounds of the Season, this quick 2002 holiday devotional by Daniel Partner is subtitled The Story Behind the Story of Twenty Two Classic Christmas Carols.  Unfortunately, at only 95 pages and a hefty second hand price of twenty-five cents, the wealth of musical material possible is never fully explored.

Despite some serious history behind carols such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Go Tell It on the Mountain, What Child Is This, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, and the titular claim to get the behind the scenes scoop; there isn’t much beyond basic common knowledge given on the barely there two or three page accounts. The selection of songs is seemingly random, with We Wish You a Merry Christmas among more recent or fringe and increasingly obscure carols such as Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, Let There Be Peace on Earth, and The Little Drummer Boy-  which receives four pages of a fable repeating the song’s exact tale. If we are going with global, far reaching, or contemporary, where are In the Bleak Midwinter, Mary Did You Know, Deck the Halls, I Saw Three Ships, or hello God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen? The included carols aren’t in any order- be it by date, county of origin, or even alphabetically. Half of the spotlight is taken up by lyrics that also carry no rhyme or reason.  Some are a complete verse and chorus, but others, sadly, are the most famous quick refrains.  It Came upon a Midnight Clear’s 5 verses are completely omitted, Joy to the World is the chorus only, O Come All Ye Faithful offers no Latin lyrics, and Away in the Manger is only four lines. The Carols We Love would have increased its shelf life ten fold had it simply given all the lyrics and music and made itself a multi-faceted songbook. Instead, a brief devotional or story is attached with an often unrelated verse and random prayer.

It sounds horrible to say such things, I know. Unfortunately, there seems to be no explanation for the layout here. The opening musical bar of each tune is also included, but it often cuts off mid measure, breath, and note. Why bother unless you were going to go with a full-blown playable accompaniment? Suffice to say, if you’re looking for an extensive choir book or coffee table tome with detailed musical annotations and information on the origins of such timeless carols as Silent Night, O Holy Night, or O Come O Come Emmanuel, you won’t find it in The Carols We Love. Forget lyrics in other languages or even the composer or dates in some cases; with such a massive topic, an entire series of devotionals could have been done with blocks of carols paired from around the globe and thru the centuries. Why not a spiritual and meaningful Chicken Soup type collection of famous folks each saying what a particular carol means to them? The possibilities in revisiting why we sing the same Christmas carols year after year are endless, but The Carols We Love somehow missed everything but the bare minimum. Sure, some of our crèche classics have obscure beginnings or anonymity behind them, but that in itself is a tale to tell and others have really great multicultural and medieval stories to share. Perhaps this is all expecting too much of a decade old ‘value book’ that originally retailed at ninety-nine cents. However, if you’re seeking any kind of mature religious depth, historical insights, or adult scholarly into the origins of our Christmas melodies, The Carols We Love can only be a disappointment.

Nonetheless and all that aside, if The Carols We Love had expressly geared itself toward a youth audience instead of a desperate reach for devotional blasé, there could be some potential here.  Young and budding musicians or an elementary Sunday School Christmas reading and discussion might work for these simplistic tales. The passages are still all over the place in information, character, lyrical analysis, or lack thereof, but a better Biblical companion reference, musical prayer, or questionnaire worksheet would go a long way.  The profiles as written are definitely thin and totally impersonal, but one classroom question at the end of each carol might have made all the difference. Like the Magi, what gift would you bring?  How do you keep Christmas if you have a family member in the military? How will you make room in your heart for Jesus this December? Instead of going thru the motions, The Carols We Love could have really struck a holiday heartstring or educational, songful explanation.  Otherwise, a quick adult read over a few days can leave one feeling cold and without meaning at Christmas- and for a believer interested in this kind of book, Christ is certainly not either of those things.

I feel so harsh! Negatively writing on an innocent devotional that I’d like to think had some honest intentions even if the execution was flawed. Perhaps The Carols We Love isn’t all that bad. For readers of Advent devotionals, those interested in the musical subject matter, or ones hoping to bring carols into the classroom in an easy, simple manner, this quick session has its own superficial meaning.  It’s passionless, far too brief, ill prepared, and has an undefined audience, but one can find a piece of his own redeeming merit in The Carols We Love. 

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