On the longest night, the night of the Winter Solstice, here’s a song for the first day of winter. Asleep the Snow Came Flying by Tim Story, is from the Windham Hill album, a Winter’s Solstice IV.
We are four days from the winter solstice, and overnight the earth turned white and ice coated the shrubs and birdfeeders. So it seems most appropriate that today’s Christmas tune is In the Bleak Midwinter. The words are those of English poet Christina Rosetti. There are hundreds of recordings of this song, but I chose Sarah McLachlan’s version from her Wintersong album.
Anyone who has grown up on a farm knows how peaceful a barn can be when it’s dark and cold outside and the animals inside are resting and shuffling in the hay. This carol, The Friendly Beasts, conjures up that memory for me, and images of a “stable rude.” The carol dates back to the 12th century. Many people have recorded this song, from Peter Paul and Mary to Garth Brooks. The version that I chose is by Sufjan Stevens, from his Songs of Christmas album.
The other day I was reminiscing about Christmas caroling in western NY with our little country church. We were hard-core: bundled up, a caravan of cars traveling through the snow covered hills and piling out at the homes of shut-ins and elderly folks and other people on the list each year. We would sing a few carols and then shout out the last song —We Wish You a Merry Christmas! —cheeks pink with cold and clouds of breath hanging in the air. We also knew which houses had cookies and homemade caramels that they passed out to us after we sang. Today’s Christmas song is Soul Cake from Sting’s If On A Winter’s Night” album. Soul cakes are small spiced cakes marked with a cross that originated in the middle ages. Thought to be associated with All Hallows Eve, when children would roam the streets singing and asking for soul cakes, the song has become connected with Christmas and caroling.
Today’s song is from the Chieftan’s Bells of Dublin Christmas album. Il Est Nè, Le Divin Enfant features Canadian folk singers Kate & Anna McGarrigle. Although I remember the tune well, I couldn’t find the translation that I remember from my childhood. “Born is He, little child divine” is as much as I can remember, but I do love this charming Breton carol.
Whenever I would listen to the Winter Solstice V album from Windham Hill, I loved this pensive track, My Heart is Always Moving, with its gorgeous violin and organ building through the song, but I didn’t know much about it. The song is a Danish/Norwegian carol from 1732, by a Danish Lutheran bishop, Hans Adolph Brorson. The English translation of the lyrics is as follows:
My heart always wanders to where Jesus once was born.
There I collect and unify my thoughts.
There my longing finds its home, there my faith has its treasure;
I can never forget you O blessed Christmas night
The sparrow has its nest and safe place of rest
A swallow can expect a peaceful night’s shelter
The lion has his cave where he can find rest
— Must my God take shelter in another’s stable and straw?
Ach! I want to open my heart and soul
And full of longing sigh, oh come Jesus here within
This is no stranger’s housing, you bought it of yourself
Here can you safely stay, swaddled in my heart
I want to scatter palm branches around your crib,
For you, for you alone will I live and will I die.
Oh Come let my soul find within you its pure blissful moment,
That you were born here deep in my heart’s depths
Today’s tune is from Canadian folk musician Bruce Cockburn. His album titled simply Christmas includes this rollicking tune Early On One Christmas Morn, a joyful song about the birth of the Christ child.
I have always loved the plaintive carol I Wonder As I Wander written by folklorist John Jacob Niles. The melody and lyrics were inspired by hearing a young Appalachian child sing a fragment of a long-lost song, and whenever I hear it I imagine someone wandering out in the night across the worn, snowy Appalachian hills. This version comes from the beautiful album titled Christmas Star: Carols For The Christmas Season by the Cambridge Singers, a wonderful album to add to your Christmas collection.