Should Paganized Yule Carols Be Encouraged?

Evangelical Christians are always swiping slogans and memes from media or popular culture and Christ-fying them. On the Baptist Church signboard that I pass on the way into Pueblo, I have seen “Got Jesus?”—an obvious steal from the dairy industry’s “Got milk?” campaign.

Here are more examples of “Christ-ification.” (“Got Jesus?” is there too.)

So what happens when Pagans do it?

I am fully aware of the filk tradition, and Polyhymnia knows that people have been putting new words to old tunes since forever.

So when you put new words to traditional Christmas carols, everyone knows the tunes, at least.

Since “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a commercial song and not religious, why not (aside from copyright issues) turn it into the catchy “Faunus the Roman Goat God“? And the production values are pretty good.

But I keep going back to “Got Jesus?” on the Baptist church sign.

Are we not creative enough to come up with our own songs? Isn’t there something intrinsically second-rate about taking a song from the dominant culture and turning it into “We Three Witches,” even when the adaption is well-done?

10 thoughts on “Should Paganized Yule Carols Be Encouraged?

  1. As you said, “everybody knows the tune,” and that makes a real difference especially when you’re working with a public ritual or with a group that doesn’t incorporate a lot of music into their rits.

    I think the key difference between mainstream and pagan music is one of immersion. Is there an English-speaking pagan who has not been immersed in carols and other churchy music from earliest childhood? So our musical minds are colonized by these pieces, and new pagan songs that somehow manage to avoid the Scylla of tune-theft and the Charybdis of boring funereal chants have a third fight: being heard and sung often enough to colonize their own territory in our heads.

    Of course, we have wonderful music. In our own self-defense, we should sing it and listen to it as often as humanly possible, and never hold a ritual evening without 2 or 3 songs either as part of the rit or as a singalong sometime during the evening. It will still be a tough slog, but that’s what we need.

    A yummy favorite, from the Wyrd Sisters:

    • I find the language of being “colonized” to be misleading. Yeah, Paola Freire and all that–I’ve been there. I suppose I was “colonized” by Winnie the Pooh and Lord of the Rings too.

      In other words, it is a term that makes us into passive victims, without agency. How about “cultural heritage”? But consider this:

      “Is there an English-speaking pagan who has not been immersed in carols and other churchy music from earliest childhood?”

      Many, in fact. Not all of us sang in the choir, literally. Or we might just associate “We Three Kings” with mall music. It’s heritage, but it is religiously deracinated. Why go there?

  2. There’s a Yeats poem that is called something like “Words to a Song Rewritten for the Sake of the Tune.”

    Honestly, some of the actual tunes of Christmas carols (and I make a distinction between carols and “Christmas songs”–“Rudolf” is a song, whereas “We Three Kings” is a carol) are quite wonderful, stirring, and moving. As pieces of technology that don’t necessarily have to be tied to the meanings and religious or cultural associations that they’ve been given, why not re-purpose them–especially if it can be done in a way that isn’t just silliness the way that “Faunus the Roman Goat-God” is? The Christians took an awful lot from us to create their holiday observance at this time of year; why can’t we take some of the things back that they’ve added as “interest” on their initial (stolen) principal?

    Of course, I’m biased in this, because I do this writing of contrafacta rather a lot, and quite enjoy doing so. I have no talent for writing tunes, but lyrics are another matter altogether. Until I get better at tune-writing, lyric-shifting can be useful, since (again, using the technological interpretation) one knows the tune will work, it just needs to be re-wired slightly to have its lights blink in a different order, as it were.

  3. Should Paganized Yule Carols be Encouraged? NO!!! Let’s write our own original stuff.

  4. I don’t object – at all – to setting new words to an old tune; in fact, I have done some of that in public rituals over the years (the most successful was probably the setting of a hymn to Demeter from “To the Gods of Hellas” to a medieval French carol tune (the French had the best tunes!).

    However, I really can’t stand “religious filk”… it just sets my teeth on edge in ways that regular filk, done for the sake of the joke, does not.

  5. I’ve done several Pagan adaptations of Christmas carols for my Grove’s Yule rites, since everyone does indeed know the tunes. ( I’ve done plenty of other song parodies for ritual purposes, including a retelling of the Odyssey to the tunes of the various songs from the movie “Yellow Submarine”.

    Should I write new songs instead? No, I should not. Because I don’t know how to write music. I know how to write words. If others want to write new Yule songs, they should go do that. I choose to make the offerings I can make, rather than make no offerings.

  6. We can only relate to the culture we live within as folks who live within it. Try as hard as we might, we cannot make another, different culture for us to live within, separate and apart and making culture on our own.

    Paganism is one of many sub-cultures jostling around in the all-containing bowl of the culture we live within. Paganism is not free, independent, and autonomous (That, maybe, is what our distant ancestors enjoyed).

    So we make up our sub-culture out of the resources held by our all-containing bowl of bigger culture. Including the music resources.

    Plenty of influential Pagan makers of music appear to have had a soft spot for Christian church music. They put new and Pagan-y clever lyrics those old tunes. And then, familiar pop tunes sorta filked their way in, too.

    And this beat goes on.

    Cranky though it makes me sometimes, I have come to appreciate the sub-cultural ambition, creativity, and joie de vivre that energizes this on-going process. Plus, the solidarity and amity Pagan music may infuse into a good ritual or a lively community.

    I think that an intention to make Pagan music that is apart from all other music (and I’ve had my moments of trying to do it!) turns out to lead toward alienated purity for the sake of the very isolated refinement of it all.

    And it strikes me as counter-Pagan.

    Paganism values the connections. And that’s what we hear and sing and find ourselves moved by when we make the culturally hybridized music that we do. All tangled up in the strands and webs and swirls and overtones of our all-containing bowl of bigger culture incorporating all those sub-cultures.

    Hark! The Mongrel Pagans Yowl!

  7. I think its a mistake to say that all Christmas carols are Christian songs. If you look in an old Lutheran Hymnal at the credits for the music, a large percentage of the hymns will say:
    tune: English folk tune
    tune: Norwegian folk tune

    The lyrics, of course, were written with Christianity in mind, but the tunes were part of folk culture, they’d been passed down for generations and then an enterprising lyricist, took a well-known tune and wrote new words for it. Why should contemporary pagan culture be any different? It adds to the depth of a culture to use folk tunes that have been with us for hundreds of years. The lyrics Greensleeves has been rewritten so many times, if you ask a group of people to sing it, you’ll get several well-known versions. Throughout history this has been how culture has been created and recreated.

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