In what will probably become an annual festive tradition as beloved of eating the entire contents of one of those plastic trays full of really salty pretzels while watching that episode of Dad’s Army where they help with the harvest for the two hundredth time, I have asked four of this year’s Best Music Recommender in the World competitors to write about a Christmas song. Today, Georgia Boon makes the case for a Christmas carol that has that little bit extra.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
When I was a kid, there was an old organ in the house. Implausibly, my dad bought it for £10 in the 1970s to save it from being smashed to pieces in an episode of It’s a Knockout. When I was little, I had to stretch my feet down to the pedals of the organ to get air into it and often would end up just standing up, jumping from one foot to the other to make it work.
It was ancient. It had gothic lettering on the stops and baroque carvings on the sides. It felt so medieval that you would be on the lookout for black spots appearing on the backs of your hands as you played, and half expected to be handed some kind of ale horn after a good performance. The sound of the thing was primitive, somewhere between a bird-bone pipe and a hurdy gurdy.
There was only one carol that sounded right on that organ. One of the only carols written in a minor key. A carol brimming with mead and crystallised fruit. It’s a carol that is so old that it pre-dates our current mode of vowel pronunciation, which means it has a reputation for irritating people by rhyming ‘mind’ with ‘wind’ in its third verse. (Fun fact: the old vowel pronunciation for the 16th century when it is believed the carol dates from meant that wind would have rhymed with mind rather than mind with wind…)
It’s a banger. It’s sulky. It’s definitively jazzy.
It is also possibly the only thing that links Manheim Steamroller, Erasure, Wynton Marsalis and the cast of Riverdale.
This is a carol that is strictly business. It’s about a battle between good and evil. It hops between major and minor keys mid-bar and never goes where you expect. Just when you think everything is coming out of the gloom with tidings of comfort and joy moving into that major key, you realise it’s only for an instant, as comfort and joy is repeated, this time in that dusky minor.
At around 11am on Christmas Eve 2003, my dad died suddenly in the room above the ancient organ. The joy was sucked out of Christmas. The house got full of people who had come to pay their respects. When family members were suitably drunk, and yelled, ‘it is Christmas after all, play us a carol,’ at me, there was only one that could be permitted.
This year, once again it may be that there is only one carol that fits the mood. One that gives instant vibes of plague times and the horrors of feudalism. To anyone playing you any form of jauntiness – decking the dingdonging merry halls – feel free to yell ‘read the room’ at them, so long as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is cued up on your boom box.