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12 Gorgeous Lesser-Known Christmas Carols

Right about now, you may have gotten tired of hearing "Silent Night" and "Sleigh Ride" ad nauseam -- at concerts, on the radio, in the stores. Fortunately, I can help you keep the Christmas spirit with some lovely music that may be new to you.

My husband likes to claim that I have a Ph.D. in Christmas. I roll my eyes at this, but when I look at my collection of over 60 Christmas CDs, I can't really argue with him. 

First of all, check out the post I wrote years ago about my top ten Christmas CDs; there's enough goodness there to keep you going for days. But if you want more (and really: unless you're some kind of Grinch, why wouldn't you?), check out the carols below. 

1) Adam Lay Ybounden -- The text dates from the early fifteenth century, and English choirmaster Boris Ord set it in perfect, ethereal polyphony in the early 1900s. I love the reminder that "as in Adam, all men die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:22.)

2) Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day -- Oh, you think you know this one? Maybe you've heard the text, but this is a newer musical setting that I adore. I treasure the memory of rehearsing this with the Manhattan Third Ward choir--forty amazing singers packed into our tiny apartment, making the walls shake with joy and music. 

3) The Huron Carol -- In 1643, a Jesuit missionary named Jean de Brébeuf composed this carol in the Algonquin language and set it to an old French folk tune, making it Canada's oldest Christmas carol. Jesse Middleton translated it in 1926, and I love the localized imagery--"a ragged robe of rabbit skin," etc.--that Brébeuf and Middleton use to bring immediacy and relevance to the story. 

4) Born on a New Day -- Welsh singer John David composed a secular version of this song in the late 1970s, and The King's Singers have made it famous in recent years. It's pretty in the original, but with Christmas words? Let's put it this way: I have never once made it through singing along to this piece without breaking down. "Fold around me where I fall...." Bliss.

5) Sing We the Virgin Mary -- American folk musicologist John Jacob Niles (who is famous for having collected "I Wonder as I Wander") claims to have collected this carol in Kentucky in 1933. If it's true, and he didn't actually write it himself, than this piece would be a near-miraculous preservation of the fifteenth-century carol "I Sing of a Maiden That is Makeless." Whatever its provenance, this carol's Appalachian lilt is a refreshing lullaby. The Taverner Consort sings it on its album "The Promise of Ages." That's the version you want. Or sing it yourself, using the music in the New Shorter Oxford Book of Carols. Brilliant.

6) "Come, and I Will Sing You" -- Also known as "Green Grow the Rushes-O," this ancient folk song is a cumulative carol (like "The Twelve Days of Christmas," with something new added every verse). Great Big Sea does it best. 

7) "The Seven Joys of Mary" -- This carol wasn't originally associated with Christmas, but has come to be so over the last hundred years or so. It's meant as devotional literature, allowing the hearer to contemplate the fulfillment Mary found in witnessing her Son's divine mission. Great Big Sea rocks it, as does The Choir of King's College

8) "The Birds" -- My bosom friend and fellow Christmas music fanatic, Tina Fairweather, introduced me to this piece just this year. I swoon over composer Benjamin Britten (and lyricist Hilaire Belloc) in any case, and this is exquisite in its simplicity. 

9) "The Wildwood Carol" -- As far as I'm concerned, composer John Rutter IS Christmas music. He co-edited the Oxford Book of Carols with David Willcocks, and I need me a heavy dose of Rutter's considerable and fabulous output every Christmas. This is an excellent collection, which features the plaintive "Wildwood Carol," written as part of Rutter's musical adaptation of the childhood classic The Wind in the Willows.

10) Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains -- I was shocked when I found out that Wendy Hegseth, my best friend in third grade, had never heard this carol. It turns out that there's a good reason for that; it's the only LDS-written carol in the LDS hymnal. It's simple, but excellent for part-singing--and it makes an excellent accompaniment to skipping through puddles in the rain. Just ask Wendy Hegseth. 

11) A Ceremony of Carols -- Here, I cheat a bit, but it's Britten, so I can't help myself. This is a choral piece in eleven movements, any one of which makes a lovely carol. My favorites are "Balulalow" (<--- that kid'll make you cry, guaranteed) and "This Little Babe," but the piece as a whole gives the listener the best kind of goosebumps. 

12) Fantasia on Christmas Carols -- Yes, more cheating, but there's only one composer I love more than Britten, and that's Ralph Vaughan Williams. RVW collected carols all over Great Britain for decades, and here, he sets several of them in a glorious pastiche of Christmas joy. Patrick and I sang this in Manhattan years ago, with the marvelous Murray Boren conducting, the glorious Glen Nelson singing the baritone solo, and with genius D. Fletcher at the organ. I relive that memory every Christmas. Such. A. Delight. 

BONUS! You need a New Year's Carol, don't you? For when you re-read Dickens's novella "The Chimes," while eating leftover Christmas pudding, and are thus indulging in the best kind of Anglo-melancholy? I've got just the ticket: "Ring Out, Wild Bells," with words by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and music by the prodigiously gifted Crawford Gates. (Click on the link above, then select the proper song--and you'll unfortunately only get a slice of it, but here are the sheet music and midi files.) You're welcome.

Merry Christmas, and God bless us, every one! 

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Reader Comments (3)

How I wish I had read this post before Christmas! I was looking around for Christmas music. Have you come across a group called Anonymous 4? They have some lovely ancient a capella music which I often enjoy coming up to Christmas.

January 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLemongrass

Yes, I adore them! Such lovely harmonies.

January 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterLuisa Perkins

Great list! I love non-traditional Christmas songs. Here's a playlist of some lesser-known Christmas music: Obscure Christmas Songs

December 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJohn M

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