There's a reason why Christmas carols start filling the air before we have polished off the last pieces of our Halloween candy. Craving a sense of community and drawn to ritual, we welcome the return of seasonal music, even if the calendar says we have several weeks to go before Dec. 25, according to Jeffrey Sharkey, director of the Peabody Institute at The Johns Hopkins University.
Whether your favorite holiday song features a warbling chorus of Peanuts characters accompanied by a toy piano or a pitch-perfect boys' choir accompanied by a Steinway, the songs of the season have a way of bringing us together, particularly in Western culture, said Sharkey, a pianist, composer, and veteran music educator.
"Carols have a particular place in people's hearts because they come at a very important time—the Christmas season," Sharkey said. "I think whatever one's religion, these carols are part of, certainly, the Western tradition. And there's a ritual element to the carol."
For Sharkey, Coventry Carol has long been a holiday touchstone. Written in the 16th century, the bittersweet carol tells the story of Herod's decree to put to death all the first-born boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2, for fear that the Messiah might be among them. As a student at Newark High School in Delaware, Sharkey was part of a choral group that performed the song each year, a ritual he remembers with fondness. Later in life, he and his wife bought their first home in the town of Coventry in England, where the piece was originally performed.
Besides his personal history with the Coventry Carol, Sharkey is drawn in by the beauty he hears in both its musical structure and the story it tells.
"It's mostly in a minor key until the very last chord and, rather as a surprise, you get a major triad," Sharkey said. "It has a fancy name, a French name called a tierce de Picardie, or a Picardy third, and that's just to have a very strong effect at the end of a minor piece. It's also really moving because of the words. The words are really about a mother parting with a child because of Herod's decree that all first-borns under the age of 2 must be sacrificed, and she's saying goodbye to this child."
The way the Coventry Carol keeps looping back on the same sequence of notes is emblematic of the larger tradition taking place in the songs of the holiday season, Sharkey said.
"We take comfort in ritual," Sharkey said. "We take comfort in hearing some familiar songs, some familiar melodies expressing familiar sentiments at a particular time of year. It is something that brings us together and binds us together."