My mother was a WWII English war bride, and she brought many of her favorite English Christmas traditions with her to America. Things like making fruitcake and plum pudding on stir-up day, decorating with lots of live greens, making mince pies, and singing carols. She loved to sing. There were 13 children in our family so singing carols at Christmas was a lot of fun.
I had always thought about doing a Christmas program around carols as a way to bring people together to sing. I happened on the story behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer accidentally and I was so intrigued I began looking into the background of other carols. This book is actually a reprint of the original Rudolph book, and the song which was developed from the story varies quite a bit from the way Bob May wrote it in 1939.
Some of the most famous carols, like Frosty the Snowman, have great stories—and Frosty, as you know, was written Jack Rollins from Keyser, WV. I found others with Appalachian connections as well.
The more I researched, the more fascinated I became. I ran into my friend Jeff Seager one day and we got talking about carols somehow and I was telling him about what I’d been doing. He was interested and thought it sounded like fun so we started working together on this program.
As a storyteller, I like to include a lot of audience participation, particularly when the audience is children or family audiences. So as we developed this program I looked for songs that had opportunities to include participation, like Chrissamas Day in the Morning, which really was a harvest song in which farmers acted out the various animal parts. But with the addition of the refrain “Chrissamas Day in the morning…” it became a Christmas song. So we do that one. And there are others that also allow for audience participation. And of course many carols are great for singalong as people either know them or can pick up the refrain easily. Jeff likes to sing Children Go Where I Send Thee, a spiritual that is also a counting song. Some historians believe that slaves used this song as a way to teach counting.
What’s your favorite carol?
I love the traditional ones, like Deck the Halls. They remind me of my childhood and Deck the Halls in particular has such a happy melody. It also has an Appalachian connection you know—it is believed to have originated in Wales, and brought to the US by coal miners working in the coal fields here in Appalachia.
If I have to name a favorite, though…that’s hard. One is The Holly Bears a Berry. This one came from Cornwall, England, and is also called the Sans Day Carol, as the first record of it was noted at Saint Day Church in Cornwall. What I like about this song is the folklore behind it. The song is probably quite old, dating back to pagan and druid times. When Christianity came to the British Isles, the monks sought to lead people to this new religion by adapting the old songs to include Christian motifs. So this one talks about the Holly’s characteristics, and ties them to Christian beliefs. It also includes a nice refrain for the audience to sing along.
There’s also the Cherry Tree Carol, another one from the British Isles that was adapted here into an Appalachian version. It is one of the Child ballads, one of the very few in that ten-volume collection to have a religious theme.
And then Down in Yon Forest, a haunting tune and rarely heard, at least in my experience. It was collected by John Jacob Niles in Appalachia in the 1930’s, around the same time as he collected I Wonder as I Wander, which is more familiar to most people. But Down in Yon Forest has Arthurian overtones in the lyrics; it was originally sung on Corpus Christi feast day, but in the mountains the line “sing all good men for the newborn baby” was added and it became a song for the Christmas season. I love to sing it.
Where do you offer this program?
All kinds of places! Churches, libraries, theaters, state parks, private house concerts. It really fits almost any venue. And almost any audience, as we can vary the songs to suit the group in front of us at the time.
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