It’s that time of year when I get messages from all over the shop, asking, “Sam, do you know any non-religious folk songs for Christmas?” Where does one even start?
Britain has a stunning legacy of secular ancient songs, mostly forgotten and buried beneath the tinsel of today’s popular repertoire. But step beyond this and you’ll find a wealth of unique ‘vernacular’ ways of celebrating Christmas, and the ancient pagan festivities that converge with it in this midwinter period.
For me, keeping connected to the deeper meaning of midwinter – while healthily avoiding the corrosive nature of commercial Christmas – is greatly helped by listening to music that will never get to number one. If you want to explore some wonderful sounds and voices from distant lands and times past, here are some gems that have preserved the rarest ways we have sung through the darkest time of year.
Five albums of alternative Christmas songs
English Village Carols: Traditional Christmas Carolling from the Southern Pennines – 1999
Starting locally, here are some recordings from the Pennine Pubs that throughout December keep a unique repertoire of songs in full chorus. Includes songs you may know, but many you won’t, and some blinders that mess about with what a carol should sound like.
You may like:
- My country life: the wassailer
- What’s on TV and radio this Christmas?
- History of British Christmas traditions
Ukrainian Christmas Songs – 1956
A charming collection of choral voices from children and choirs in one of the world’s finest singing nations. An album of unusual and yet very familiar carols, sung with enormous cheer and glee.
Cantos de Las Posadas and Other Christmas Songs – 1963
Las Posadas (‘the shelters’) are songs about that very theme and are popular across the Spanish and Latin world. This album of Mexican recordings charts these stunning songs, which were traditionally carolled from house to house by those seeking shelter within the community. One of the most glorious and winter sun-filled records.
Christmas Songs – Anúna – 2009
Back in familiar lands but with unfamiliar songs sung in both English and Irish Gaelic and sung by one of the country’s finest choral ensembles. Anúna capture the tranquility and magical stillness in their renditions of some of the great folk carols and Irish language psalms.
Christmas in the Philippines, Bayanihan – 1960s
One of the most unlikely – yet charming – records of local Filipino and appropriated versions of English songs. This album gives a fantastic insight into how Christmas has been one of the most successful cultural exports that has assimilated itself into new lands in such bold and characterful ways.