Pat Blythe – ‘Tis the season…..a little music history….with music

All my neatly laid out plans for today’s column……changed on the note of a Christmas song. Although Fall may be my favourite time of year, Christmas is by far my favourite holiday. It is an incredibly happy, sad, bittersweet and joyous time of year that brings out every possible emotion in me. I run through them from top to bottom repeatedly.

Victoria Park at Christmas

My childhood memories run deep….of the work my dad put into stringing the lights and how they glowed through freshly fallen snow on the tops of the bushes outside our bedroom window. He’d paper the entire front door in red or gold or silver shiny paper and then arrange a coloured spotlight on it.  Waiting up for Santa and waking up to those Christmas stockings. I loved Christmas carols and the voices of the choirs that would sing them. Standing outside the open doors at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London (Ont.) with friends singing at the top of our lungs or wandering through the winter wonderland at Victoria Park…. It just filled me up.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, Ontario

However, it is the music of Christmas that I love most of all. From Gregorian Chants to Manheim Steamroller and yes, even Tran-Siberian Orchestra….it is indeed music to bake by and sing to. Then there’s the Bing Crosby/David Bowie video that makes the rounds every year on The Book of Face. Sharing favourite Christmas music with a friend last evening and well….the bands I was going to write about….they can wait. So down the rabbit hole I go once more!

Christmas hymns and carols….a little history


The origins of Christmas hymns date back to the 4th century with the earliest known written by St. Hilary of Poitiers in honour of the Nativity, “Jesus refulsit omnium” (Jesus, Light of All the Nations). St. Hilary died in 368. A carol was originally meant as a cheerful, lively dance, not necessarily associated specifically with Christmas. St. Francis of Assisi, who created the first crèche or nativity scene, sang carols there.

Carols were more secular with the earliest dating from the 15th century mystery plays depicting Biblical scenes. The Coventry Carol is one that remains popular six centuries later.  God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The 12 Days of Christmas and O Christmas Tree originated in the 16th century. In 1426 John Audelay, a priest from Shropshire listed 25 “carols of Cristemas” probably sung by wassailers. Wassailing was the practice of going door-to-door singing and offering a drink from the wassail bowl in exchange for gifts. Today it’s replaced by caroling, without the wassail bowl, in the malls and shops. Sadly, no more door-to-door. The Victorians gave us Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem and O Holy Night as well as Jolly Old St, Nicholas. During this time, hymns were translated or had lyrics added to them.

Truro Cathedral Choir and Chancel

Singing carols in church was instituted on Christmas Eve 1880 at Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, England. Known as Nine Lessons and Carols it is now seen in churches all over the world and is broadcast to the world by the BBC from King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.

Sidenote: :Nine Lessons and Carols, also known as the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and Service of Nine Lessons and Carols, is a service of Christian worship traditionally celebrated on or near Christmas Eve. The story of the fall of humanity, the promise of the Messiah, and the birth of Jesus is told in nine short bible readings from Genesis, the prophetic books and the Gospels, interspersed with the singing of Christmas hymns, carols and other choir anthems.” — Wikipedia

Gregorian chants…..


Gregorian Chant “music”

They give me chills and touch something almost visceral deep inside. Named after St. Gregory I (papacy 590-604), Gregorian chants were used to accompany the text of the mass. Known as liturgical music of the Roman Catholic Church, Gregorian chanting is monophonic meaning is typically sung by a solitary singer or performed by a single instrument without accompanying harmony or chords. Monophonic also refers to a group of singers singing the same melody in unison.


The following piece is one of my favourites and is done in the style of a Gregorian Chant sung entirely in Latin. According to Wikipedia, “the words and the music…..developed separately. The Latin text is first documented in Germany in 1710, whereas the tune most familiar in the English-speaking world has its origins in 15th century France.”

Veni Veni (O Come O Come Emanual) – Manheim Steamroller

A feature of Christmas and its celebrations today, Christmas hymns and carols are sung in churches, malls, street corners, your local grocery store, parks and homes throughout the season. A highly emotional time, Christmas music can fill our hearts with joy and happiness, peace and contentment or move us tears.  It does both for me. “Music in itself soon became one of the greatest tributes to Christmas, and Christmas music includes some of the noblest compositions of the great musicians.” – Wikipedia

There is something infinitely special about Christmas music. The richness, the spiritual, the blending of voices in pure harmony, the tapestries of stories woven through music and passed on through time….the hope, the joy, the love….it’s all there in the music and songs of this special holiday.

Temple Church, London, England

The Temple Church was built by the Knights Templar to use as their English headquarters in the City of London. It is located between Fleet Street and the River Thames. Knights Templar were an order of crusading monks, founded in the 12th century, to protect pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. The Church is in two parts: the Round and the Chancel. The Round Church, consecrated on 10 February 1185 by Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem, was designed to recall the holiest place in the Crusaders’ world….the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Inside Temple Church

I sat in the courtyard outside the church with Chris and listened to the boys choir rehearse. The purity and clarity of their voices rang through the night, reflecting off the surrounding buildings and the night air. It was hauntingly beautiful, deeply moving and peaceful. The following video, although recorded in 1958, is very similar to what we listened to that October evening in England. The young voices at 4:43 and 4:48 are so clear.

Rehearsal at Temple Church

“The Coventry Carol, surprisingly, is not a Christmas carol at all. It is actually a part of the Feast if the Holy Innocents, celebrated December 28, commemorating the massacre of the young children of Bethlehem ordered by King Herod in an attempt to eliminate the Messiah.

 The Massacre of the Innocents by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The origins of the Coventry Carol as we know it are not clear. The play was performed in the 15th century for Queen Margaret of England in 1456 and for Henry VII in 1492 It may go back as far as 1392. The lyrics known today are attributed to Robert Croo 1534…..and the music to an unknown composer in 1591.” – English History Authors

Coventry Carol – King’s College Cambridge

Coventry Carol – Loreena McKennitt

English Robin in the holly and the ivy

The Holly and the Ivy dates from about 1700 but has roots in very ancient traditions of both the Druids and Romans. In Druidic beliefs, holly represented the man (rigid with prickly leaves and drops of blood represented by the red berries). The ivy was symbolic of the woman….gentle, clinging, requiring support. For the Romans holly was associated with the ancient Roman festival Saturnalia, the predecessor of Christmas, the ivy with Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. ….and the Celts, holly was a feature of the summer and winter solstice celebrations.

The Holly and the Ivy – Manheim Steamroller

The Three Magi

The twelve days of Christmas begins on December 25 and ends January 6. It marks the coming of the three Magi or Wisemen after the birth of Christ. However, the song itself is actually a “memory and forfeits” game. Singers had to test their recall of the lyrics. If they forgot they had to award their opponents a “forfeit”, possibly a kiss or favour of some kind. The earliest known version of this song appeared in 1780 in a children’s book called Mirth With-out Mischief.

The 12 Days of Christmas – The King’s Singers and The Morman Tabernacle Choir

A German Christmas song, O Tannenbaum is based on a traditional folk song about a stalwart fir tree. The current lyrics were written in 1820 and the song became associated with Christmas by the Victorians who, thanks to Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, began the custom of putting up a Christmas trees and decorating it on Christmas Eve. The following piano piece is, of course, from my very favourite Christmas movie.

O Christmas Tree/O Tannenbaum – Vince Guaraldi Trio

The following song is performed by one of my dearest friends and a wonderful singer/songwriter Sarah Smith. It was filmed just recently in my hometown of London, Ontario in Victoria Park. Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas too Sarah!

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Sarah Smith

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen is one of the oldest English traditional Christmas carols we sing, dating back to the 16th century and quite possibly earlier. The first known printed edition was in a broadsheet circa 1760. The carol has had several different names associated with it including Come All You Worthy Gentelmen; Tidings of Comfort and Joy; God Rest Ye, Merry Christians; God Rest You Merry People All and of course God Rest Ye (o rYou) Merry Gentlemen.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman – Annie Lennox

Still Still Still – Manheim Steamroller

This one just takes my breath away. Krauss’s voice is so pure and heartrending, the storyline a familiar one to many of us at this time of year. Simply beautiful.

Get Me Through December – Alison Krauss w/Natalie MacMaster

The Wexford Carol – Alison Krauss and Yo Yo Ma

The following song is beautifully done, a cappella style and gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

Mary Did You Know – Pentatonix

A beautifully done album, I watched the story unfold at a live performance a number of years ago. It still keeps my ears and heart spellbound and fills my eyes with tears. A story about a young angel earning his wings. Listen to tracks 26:31 (Christmas Eve/Sarajevo), a powerful instrumental, and 40:03 (This Christmas Day) which is particularly poignant.

Christmas Eve and Other Stories – Trans-Siberian Orchestra (full album)

Happy singing…..


Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

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dbawis-buttonIn “real” life Pat Blythe has spent the past 32 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry. After an extended absence Pat is now heading back to the GTA clubs, immersing herself in the local music scene, tasting what’s on offer, talking to people and writing once again — sharing her passions and her deep love of music. Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who shot much  of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda Little Red-headed dancing girland the Imps, Plateau, Buzzsaw, Hellfield….) as well as national and international acts,  Currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, Pat is currently compiling a photographic history of the local GTA music scene from 1975 to 1985. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES  to dance!

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