Winter is here, lend me your ear...
December 23, 2011 4:40 AM   Subscribe

Christmas carols for pagans? Mentions of Yuletide, Solstice and winter are excellent, Santa is fine, Christmas is fine, but I'm looking for beautiful music (choral and orchestral) that has no mention of Jesus Christ, Israel or saints.

The very beautiful Carol of the Bells is pretty much exactly what I'm after although I'm scrabbling to find another example.

I don't want normal carols that have been tweaked with different lyrics (although I do already have the Cthulhu ones). Folk songs in any language that match the above criteria would be awesome too.

Any suggestions?
posted by ninazer0 to Media & Arts (36 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
If you haven't yet heard Dar Williams' The Christians and the Pagans, you might want to take a listen. I believe Christ and Mary are mentioned, but it's still probably something you'd enjoy.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:52 AM on December 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

Deck the Halls
O Tannenbaum (German)
Patapan (French)
posted by drlith at 4:53 AM on December 23, 2011

Oh, sorry, Patapan has more religious references than I recalled...
posted by drlith at 4:55 AM on December 23, 2011

And in the orchestral-only vein, the music from The Nutcracker has obvious holiday connotations to everyone's ears.
posted by drlith at 5:04 AM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: You may want to check out some of the cuts from Sting's If On A Winter's Night. It's part of his current vein of "weird classical and folk and stuff only music historians may have heard of", and he takes great pains in the liner notes to stress that this is a winter album, not just a Christmas one. (Whatever, dude.)

He does have a few carols (although they're mostly obscure ones), but there are also two songs that only mention Christmas as a sort of "and it happens to be that time of year right now" kind of thing rather than a religious reference; my favorite cut is his arrangement of a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, "Christmas at Sea," which is basically about a guy who'd become a sailor and he's working on Christmas day and his ship happens to sail past his parents' house, and he has this moment of "wait, I'm freezing my ass off and my family's in there having a great time, what the hell was I thinking?"... that song is just lovely.

Then there are also a couple other songs -- folk songs, songs from obscure operas, a couple retreads of some of his own stuff -- that are just about winter itself; "The Snow It Melts The Soonest," "The Hurdy-Gurdy Man," "The Hounds Of Winter." Check it out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:30 AM on December 23, 2011

How about I heard the bells on Christmas Day - does mention "Christendom" but in a poetic way...also, it was written as an anti-war poem by Longfellow during the civil war & then set to music.
posted by anastasiav at 5:41 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I also really like George Winston's December album. Piano solos. Ha, I listen to albums. I'm old.

Some of the play list...
Carol of the Bells
Variations on Canon
posted by Toekneesan at 5:57 AM on December 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was going to suggest the Carol of the Birds because it's beautiful, but I realize there are some opaque theological references.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 6:04 AM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: There's a very popular setting of Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Randall Thompson for men's choir that shows up on a lot of choral Christmas albums. Here's one recording. I'm sure there are lots of other settings of this poem - I know of at least one other (by Ron Caviani) but I can't find a recording to link to.
posted by mskyle at 6:13 AM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: Loreena McKennitt has released a couple of beautiful winter-themed albums. You can both have a listen and read through the lyrics on her site.

Here's To Drive The Cold Winter Away and here's A Winter Garden.

Oh! And there's an album I haven't actually heard, which includes songs in Latin and Old French: A Midwinter Night's Dream.

Her music mixes musical influences from many parts of the world with traditional lyrics, and "choral" describes some of these songs perfectly. On her other albums you can find tributes to both Beltane and Samain. So hopefully you'll be able to find something with the perfect Solstice feel among her stuff!
posted by harujion at 6:38 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Vienna Teng's Athiest Christmas Carol covers all the warm-fuzzy Christmas feelings for me without the whole Christian aspect.
posted by WowLookStars at 6:46 AM on December 23, 2011

Jethro Tull's Solistace Bells sounds almost like they were trying to make a pagan Christmas carol (and was recently on The Blue).
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:11 AM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: The various drinking wassails, the apple tree wassail, and the boar's head carol are all pretty good for this. At least one setting of the boar's head carol has a very opaque reference, but that's about it. Both the apple tree wassail and the boar's head carol are descended from pre-Christian traditions.

Magpie Lane's Wassail! A country Christmas has some good versions of these as well as other non-Christian winter songs. I think their setting of the boar's head carol is on another album though. Shira Kammen's The Casle of the Holly King is another good album.
posted by jedicus at 7:13 AM on December 23, 2011

For more traditional, recognizable songs:

- Frosty the Snowman (he'll "be back on Christmas day" at the end of some renditions, but it's otherwise secular)
- Let it Snow
- Baby It's Cold Outside
- Walking in a Winter Wonderland
posted by vytae at 7:47 AM on December 23, 2011

As I think of it, there are quite a few songs in the traditional canon, particular from the 40s and 50s (was that really a more secular time?) that aren't really religious at all.

Like Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (here sung by Karen Carpenter) or Merry Christmas, Darling
or Sleigh Ride (Johnny Mathis) or Winter Wonderland
or The Christmas Song (Chestnuts) (Nat King Cole)

There are also some neat new Christmas songs like The Waitresses' Christmas Wrapping or My Morning Jacket's Christmas Time is Here Again.
Vince Guaraldi's Peanut's music is mostly secular instrumental. Like Christmas Time is Here, or Skating

I also like Pomplamoose's cover of Deck the Halls. Which, if you're willing to donate a book, comes with their new Christmas album.
posted by Toekneesan at 8:00 AM on December 23, 2011

Jeez, I never realized how pagan Deck the Halls is. No Christmas, just Yule in the lyrics.

Oh, and also from Christmas music's golden secular age.

White Christmas (Bing) and I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. (Teresa Brewer or Amy Winehouse, if you prefer.)
posted by Toekneesan at 8:17 AM on December 23, 2011

Carol of the Birds also known as Orana. Full Lyrics here

It's an Australian Carol and is full of images of nature celebrating, not very traditional though but it sounds lovely as a choral piece.
posted by wwax at 8:29 AM on December 23, 2011

OK my husband has just informed me that that tune is from a Christian song so now I feel part of my childhood has changed and it doesn't meet your requirements anymore. I'll be over in the corner now wishing I hadn't made him listen to it.
posted by wwax at 8:32 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here We Come A-wassailing? (It does mention God, but only in the context of "God send you a Happy New Year") There are lots of other similar wassailing songs, many of which sound "christmasy" -- mostly because they're performed at this time of year and thus pick up the association -- but many do not explicitly mention Christ or Christmas. (Many of them do explicitly mention or encourage drinking, which you might consider a bonus. Musically sophisticated, they are generally not.)

I'm personally partial to Bring Us In Good Ale, notable for allowing you to sing the phrase "slobber in the mere" in the last verse.

Carol of the Bells, it is not. Though I would like to hear a Mannheim Steamroller version.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:57 AM on December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas from the Family is a favorite of mine, as is "Please Daddy don't get Drunk this Christmas"
posted by cccorlew at 9:12 AM on December 23, 2011

It's not Christmas in my family until somebody plays Jo Stafford's Ski Trails.
posted by theora55 at 9:31 AM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: There's a fairly generic mention of God in The Gloucestershire Wassail but it's not particularly Christian. More about mooching beer from the neighbors.
posted by Quietgal at 9:46 AM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: Jethro Tull has Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow.
posted by ladyriffraff at 10:02 AM on December 23, 2011

In the bleak midwinter is one of my favorites, and seems to be religion-free at least in the first verse.
posted by leahwrenn at 10:05 AM on December 23, 2011

No one has mentioned "Jingle Rock Bell" yet?

For shame people. For shame.
posted by elmer benson at 10:12 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tim Minchin's White Wine in the Sun is a nonreligious appreciation of Christmas. Author/singer is Australian, hence the unseasonable (to me in New England) title.
posted by Signed Sealed Delivered at 10:40 AM on December 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fleet Foxes White Winter Hymnal is in the secular humanist wintertide rotation here.
posted by rumposinc at 10:43 AM on December 23, 2011

Pink Martini's Joy to the World has some great songs. Some won't fit the criteria of this question but many will. Ocho Kandelikas is a really catchy tune.
posted by barnone at 12:46 PM on December 23, 2011

Pink Martini's description of the album: "Joy To The World is a festive, nondenominational holiday album with music from around the globe. “There are 14 songs on Joy to the World,” says Thomas Lauderdale, “including well-known traditional holiday songs like Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”…sung by China Forbes in English and by the incredible Saori Yuki… the Barbra Streisand of Japan… in Japanese. With the Pacific Youth Choir and the handbell choir Bells of the Cascades, we recorded “Shchedryk,” known in English-speaking countries as “Carol of the Bells,” with the original Ukrainian text which tells of a lark flying into the house at the start of a new year, thus bringing good fortune." It goes on to describe the other songs - give it a shot!
posted by barnone at 1:07 PM on December 23, 2011

I love Hard Candy Christmas, and the Killers have an excellent Christmas EP that's not religious!
posted by visual mechanic at 1:55 PM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: "The Holly and the Ivy" originally had no Jesus or Mary. Perhaps someone has recorded it with the old lyrics?
posted by Megafly at 8:59 PM on December 23, 2011

Response by poster: Awesome suggestions guys! I feel so very stupid - I own the Loreena McKennit CD and the Sting one as well. Completely forgot about them! And the wassail suggestions are all just golden. You guys rock!
posted by ninazer0 at 10:10 PM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: Oh damn, this is my -shit-!

You want pretty much anything sung by Mediaeval Baebes.

Blow Northern Wind

Also, I'm not sure how strict your anti-religious criteria is, but for me their use of "olde English", or other languages, plus their fantastically beautiful voices negates any religious mention (I'm an atheist, btw, and otherwise the same in the "please keep your Jesus out of my music" sense). Even before I knew the meaning of The Coventry Carol, their rendition of it made me cry, it was so intensely beautiful.

See also their songs Kinderly, Gaudete, Salva Nos, and I Am Eve for a wintery feel. Haven't gone too much further than that yet for "pagan Christmas" research, but I know they have at least one holiday cd out, which I think contains most, if not all, of those songs.

You should probably also look into Hayley Westenra, who also did a version of The Coventry Carol, we well as other wintry songs, such as the Dark Waltz.
posted by DisreputableDog at 10:17 PM on December 23, 2011

Also, see Nox Arcana's Winter's Knight.

Here's a song of theirs by the same name.
posted by DisreputableDog at 10:26 PM on December 23, 2011

Best answer: The Decemberists - January Hymn
posted by free hugs at 8:55 PM on December 24, 2011

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