My Pagan Yule Sounded A Lot Like Christmas

Pagans sang Christmas carols at the Yule ritual, and it totally caught me off guard.

The song sheets handed out to the attendees contained three classic, Christian favorites, re-written with Pagan, mostly Wiccan-themed lyrics. We Three Kings, Away in a Manger, and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen were retitled and reworked as Moon of Silver, Away From The Harvest, and God Rest Ye Merry Paganfolk, respectively.

Perhaps Pagan re-adaptations of Christian hymns are not big news to my readership, but I was completely taken aback. Shocked, even. After all of this discussion about needing to keep Pagan traditions distinct from Christian traditions, and hearing Pagans emphasize the importance of defining ourselves outside of the Christian paradigm, it seemed bizarre–almost absurd–to hear Pagans sing these melodies as though there was no Christianity attached to them.

When I lived in Nashville, the Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) capital of the nation, there was nothing that made my skin crawl more than to hear a Christian band assume a style, a look, or sometimes an entire genre of music that had been originated in the secular, “non-Christian” world. The tactic was rampant in the CCM industry. It happened all the time.

If a secular rock band topped the charts with a new, unique sound, you could bet good money that there would be a Christian look-alike band performing a similar song within six months. But their song would be sprinkled with Christian theology and dogma. Instead of being in love with a lady, for example, the singer would be in love with the Lord. Or, there would be a subtle mention of salvation, or heaven, or how great it felt to be saved.

No matter how well styled the recordings were, the songs ended up sounding, to me (a liberal, Episcopalian Christian at the time), like little more than generic-brand, Christian propaganda. It bothered me to think that my fellow Christians, by and large, were not producing music that would stand up on its own, while at the same time being theologically relevant. So, Christian or not, I preferred to listen to the music of an original sinner over a saved sinner rip-off.

With all that in mind, imagine how strange it felt to stand within a circle of Pagans, candles in hand, incense burning in the cauldron, and to hear everyone sing, to the tune of We Three Kings,

Maiden, Mother, Ancient Crone

Queen of Heaven on your throne,

Praise we sing Thee, Love we bring Thee

For all that you have shown.

It was like Nashville all over again.

The CCM performers lacked a genuine, authentic, artistic identity; something which made them distinct, gave credence to their message, and was thoroughly memorable. After my experience at the Yule ritual, I question whether Pagans are experiencing a similar absence of definitive and relevant identity.

If we are not clear about what we are, on what we believe, and on how those beliefs inform our actions, we borrow. We borrow because it’s easier than doing the hard, creative, introspective work. We borrow We Three Kings instead of actually writing Maiden, Mother, Ancient Crone. We borrow instead of innovating.

But if we don’t have enough fire and passion for our religious traditions to create something new, to fashion something from nothing in order to express exactly what it is that we’ve encountered in the quietest, darkest, deepest recesses of our soul, then why are we doing this? Have we encountered something worth writing a new melody for? Or, are we just performing ritual theater? Are we just engaged in religion role-play?

I need something more than that.

Pagans can make a different choice than the CCM artists did. We can take the spiritual, ecstatic experiences and encounters with nature, with our Gods, Goddesses, Spirits and Ancestors, and channel those experiences into new, thoroughly original and relevant songs — songs that don’t sound like Medieval dirges or Protestant hymns — and breathe some much-needed life into Pagan ritual, Pagan worship, and Pagan celebration.

Religion can lead to beautiful, brilliant art. If it isn’t doing that, there’s reason to pause and take a closer look at what the religion is truly offering its adherents. The creation of art is, after all, very much connected to the experience of worship and unity with the Sacred. The two are closely related.

Are our traditions inspiring us to create? To sing out loud? To rejoice at being alive? If the answer is “no,” or if we are in any way ambivalent, what does that mean for the future of Paganism? And, what can we do to ignite a creative fire within our circles and groves?


49 responses to “My Pagan Yule Sounded A Lot Like Christmas”

  1. Nicholas Farrell Avatar

    I love the reworked songs. I love the timeless beauty and grace of the original tunes with lyrics that are meaningful to me.

  2. […] Over at Bishop in the Grove, Teo Bishop took issue with the singing of Paganized Christian hymns in …  The complaint was that it was disingenuous, and that Pagans need to develop our own music.  I want to respond to this on a few levels: first on the question of Pagan music, second the question of re-appropriation, and finally on the question of the relationship of Neopaganism with Christianity. […]

  3. Guest Avatar

    I think there is also something here you might have missed. Many of those songs were pagan songs, or secular drinking songs long before they had Christmas lyrics (we get to thank St Francis of Assisi for that). Just like you pick them now because everyone knows the tune it makes it easier to sing as you learn the words. These are tunes we associate with the season why not re-purpose them as we need. They’re in public domain after all. I can fit things to a tune but I can’t write music, sometimes you have to do what you can till you find someone who can write chords for you. If we used Somewhere over the Rainbow, or Cat’s in the Cradle instead would that get smidgen more approval from you? Yes, it feels unauthentic and maybe lazy to you but building a Pagan tradition of our own will take time, and we’re in a transition phase if you will.  People goes with what’s familiar slowly adding their own that’s what makes a tradition. Besides do you know all the real words to Good King Wenceslas by heart? Did you when you were still living as Christian?
    The point of these songs in that ritual was to connect something people know with something they want to build. Someone still wrote those words and i bet a lot of thought and heart went into them. Someday, I hope that there will be hundreds of Pagan tunes that lots of people know but for now pass the mead, Happy Solstice, and enjoy the transition.

  4.  Avatar

    I agree with you, but understand people who like to use a Pagan version of Christmas carols. The new words never sound right to me since I’ve known the Christian words forever. So I sing the Christian words even when my circle is singing the Pagan words. To me, the Christian holy days are just recasting a Pagan story. I sing the Christian words and know that I am passionately thankful for the return of the Sun bringing Light, Fertility and new Life to Earth.

  5. Kilmrnock Avatar

    procedure,sorry……………….i’m mildly dislexic

  6. Kilmrnock Avatar

    On the thought of having to learn the songs first. Sounds a bit  lazy to me . At our grove we do a ritual run thru b/f the actual rtual just for that purpose .So folks are familiar w/ any chants , songs etc . All our rituals are open , so this is a normal prodecure for us .   Kilm

  7. Pink Avatar

    I have often thought that pagan liturgy could use a little work, I am a bit jealous in fact of a rousing southern baptist service in all it’s gospel choir glory. I imagine the songs we sang, in their altered lyrics, were simply so that everyone there was certain to know the tune. Makes a ritual go smoothly if we don’t have to learn the songs first.

    It did feel unauthentic though, singing tunes that I despise (because I’m a scrooge who hates christmas music, not because I hate Christians) while in a ceremony.  In the Grove yule we sang some “ADF Standards” and we also sang “The Holly and the Ivy”. I have heard many versions of the lyrics to it over the years, and we were singing a secular one. Snow, greenery, sunlight, music… that’s all that we found in the song. There was no virgin and child, nor mother goddess. A celebration of the season. Still not Pagan songcraft perhaps, but it was moving and familiar.

    Should there be a push to create pagan hymns? I would love to see more music and song in public rituals, but I would be worried about creating songs that are still forced copies of what is heard in Christian churches.

    1. Star Foster Avatar

      See, I consider bluegrass and gospel to be my cultural heritage. Practicing in Appalachia, it only makes sense for my practice to embrace my culture and resonate with the power of place.

      Kenny Klein has a Pagan bluegrass album that’s good and sort of point’s to what is possible.

  8. Kilmrnock Avatar

    I agree with you , Teo………reworking Christian Christmas songs w/ pagan lirics is just plain wrong. I belong to an ADF grove , and am damned glad we didn’t do that . we did sing Good King Wenceslas, which is pagan in nature. I must admit i still love many of the traditional carols , after all i grew up w/ this stuff. But i would not bastardise any of them to fit our purposes.Our traditions are strong enough on their own merits to need to borrow from others . We need our own songs ,written from a pagan perspective .Not to rework other folks beloved songs , dosen’t really work and just pisses them off.     Kilm

  9. Tracie Laureen Holladay Avatar

    I’m a singer myself, and I have tried singing the paganized Christmas carols. I’ve also tried singing paganized Christian hymns – such as an altered version of “Amazing Grace.” I can’t do it. I feel so creeped out and dishonest, changing songs like that. It feels so very insincere to me. Better that some really talented musicians start putting out some quality pagan music of our own, of any musical style, rather than filking Christian music, says I.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you for your comment, Tracie. I’m glad to hear your voice in this conversation.

      I understand your feelings about changing Christian carols and hymns. There’s another component to this that needs addressing, I think. Those songs have immediate, spiritual relevance to many Christians, and to rewrite them, while feeling like a reclaiming or a kind of “sharing in a common cultural heritage,” is to commit a kind of political act. Pagans are well aware of how this act has been committed against them, and it strikes me as strange that we all wouldn’t be more sensitive to doing it to others.

      It sounds like you are, though, and that we share a perspective about finding an original message, paired with an original song to express our experience of our original traditions.

      Again, thanks for the comment.

  10. MrsB Avatar

    As someone who left Christianity on good terms, and is married to a Christian, I’d rather just listen to the carols as they were originally written.  And after all these years, The Little Drummer Boy is still one of my favorites.  

    With all the talk from so many that it’s okay to take a little from this religion or that practice (Native American, Hindu, Buddhist, Hoodoo, Vodou), to create our own Pagan practices and traditions, it’s a shame that some feel we can’t enjoy some of the songs that we might have loved as kids.  The Little Drummer Boy will always be my favorite holiday song.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I love your point, Mrs. B. There seems to often be a disconnect with anything Christian, as though there is no universal or applicable message in the songs or stories. One needn’t be a Christian to find the beauty in the words.

      There are a lot of stories here about the need for healing after negative experiences with Christianity, and I know that some of the people singing new lyrics to old Christian songs are attempting to do that. The reclaiming of the melodies seems, to them, to be a necessary part of the process. I respect that.

      I will say the I think there is also value about re-thinking or re-contextualizing the words as well. To make peace with them seems like another necessary component to a holistic healing. Does that make sense?

      Also…I love Little Drummer Boy. 🙂

  11. Sanil Avatar

    I have mixed feelings about this. I used to feel the same way about Christian music, but I think there is a big difference between that sort of borrowing and a group of pagans borrowing familiar carols for a ritual. I suppose it depends on the group and whether there are members who could write their own music, but still I think that it is a different and more acceptable situation. Christian music claims to be real art. The bands make money off their “work” and try to pass it off as something that it just isn’t. By contrast, a group of people that might not have anyone among them with the time or ability to write their own original songs taking advantage of music already available, that most people know, and that is associated with the season just strikes me as a simple solution to the challenge of creating a meaningful experience for people. 

    For my part, I didn’t even bother to adapt. While I was visiting my mom’s church and Christmas carols were playing, I did my usual humming along while letting my mind wander until they got to the third verse of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” At that point, I was jerked out of my thoughts by the realization that these lyrics reminded me a lot of Dionysos, and therefore there was something for me here too. So when I performed my own ritual for the solstice, I adapted what I had planned a little and sang that verse as an offering.  I am tone deaf (literally, as in when I took a music skills test there was not a score for me because I was so low) and also have no idea where to even start if I were to try to write a song. Adapting (or just plain lifting) what I found in Christian carols allowed me to add something to my ritual that I wouldn’t have been able to have otherwise, and I know that in my case it was a major help. So I hesitate to criticize others for making the best of what they have. 

    Basically, if you have the skills to write pagan music, go for it. If you don’t, it doesn’t make sense to criticize others for not writing their own either. We all have our skills, and the fact that all of us aren’t creating new music doesn’t mean we’re not creating or that our religion is not inspiring us. 

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you for your comment, Sanil. I’m glad that you’re a part of this conversation.

      I suppose my observations and objections may have come off as a broad-stroak criticism of *people* who re-write Christmas carols with Pagan lyrics. Perhaps I wasn’t clear with my wording, or maybe I did, indeed, get critical of those people, but it wasn’t my truest intention. It’s the principal of the creative act that was bothering me, and, admittedly, that principal was being seen and judged through my own lens and bias.

      What you’ve written is a beautiful story about how you, personally, found relevance in a Christmas carol, and I think there are many, many stories like that out there. I know I have mine. For you, you heard something in the words written to celebrate Christ which fit perfectly into your ritual to honor Dionysos, and I think that’s wonderful. Had I been in a situation where we were singing original Christmas carols, but seeking to understand how their meaning (or parts of their meaning) were applicable to our Pagan experience, I imagine I may have had a similar experience. But, we were singing something altogether different.

      Again, thank you of your comment. I’m glad to hear your story of inspiration and song.

  12. Lady GreenFlame Avatar
    Lady GreenFlame

    Well, I disagree. People of all religions, or no religions, have been borrowing tunes off each other for centuries. Our national anthem is the tune of a drinking song. Some hymns started off as secular music (“Greensleeves/What Child is This”) and sometimes historically sacred music gets secularized. Folk tunes got swapped around and gussied up with completely new lyrical storylines. 

    The Christians do not “own” these tunes. They are our common cultural heritage. All Art is divine. From a practical point of view, the idea of having a set of new Pagan Yule carols that would be widely adopted, learned, used, and then *sunk into our bones* to the same extent as the familiar songs we all grew up with — not gonna happen, and personally, I see no reason for it to happen. I wrote a set of new lyrics for “Oh Come All Ye Faith” this year, and it was a powerful song that resonated strongly with my coven members.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for the comment, Lady GreenFlame. I’m glad to hear that your creative work on “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” was successful in your coven.

  13. Star Foster Avatar

    I’m a big fan of the old carols. The tunes are lovely and fun to sing, but Pagan versions of them leave me cold.

    Frankly, we have some outstanding musicians and songwriters in our communities. There are some catchy tunes out there with a distinctly Pagan bent. I don’t think we need to go borrowing from our neighbors when our own pantries are full.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I am, too, Star, and I’m glad to know that I’m not alone in that.

      From your perspective, where would be the best place for a Pagan to start investigating Pagan music for use in solitary or group ritual?

    2. WhiteBirch Avatar

      The problem I have with the Pagan music I find out there, is that most of it seems to be performance music, if you will. Designed for people to listen to someone else sing, not for a community to sing along with. There’s very little beyond chants that I can think of that’s set up for a community of non musical folk to sing together. I’d love to see something with the STRUCTURE of a hymn (verse, refrain) or with the structure of like a nursery rhyme song (simple tunes, rounds) for those of us who can’t exactly sing along with the professionals.

      That said, when I use music in ritual, I’m solitary so I don’t have to plan for a group, or even sing along. I use largely Damh the Bard and Gaia Consort, and I mostly play it in the background and just let it be around me. I could sing along, but I feel like it’s more music you sing along to in the car, but you listen to quietly and still during ritual. I don’t know where the distinction is there, it just feels more appropriate somehow.

  14. Áine Avatar

    Thank you for writing this, Teo.  I think this is something we all need to strongly consider as we grow and develop as a community.

    I know a great many Pagans — particularly those with musical inclination and/or talent — strongly object to the co-opted carols, but I will confess, they hold a very special place in my heart.  

    20-some-odd years ago, when I was a young Pagan at college — a very, *very* long way from home and lacking the money to go home for the holidays — I had written a post on ISCA BBS’s Pagan forum about having a lot of trouble getting into the spirit of the season.  I was one of only a handful of students still on campus, I hadn’t found any sort of Pagan community at college, I was inundated with /Christmas/, and I felt terribly alone.

    Something like a week later, I checked my postbox on campus and found a large white envelope with a return address I didn’t recognise.  Opening it, I found a thick packet of printouts… a whole collection of re-purposed “Solstice carols”, sent to me by some fellow Pagan from the ISCA BBS… and in those pages, I found solace from that aching loneliness.

    At the time, the fashion for Christmas music in the shops was for instrumental music, stuff like Manheim Steamroller and so on.  And so it was that, as I shopped for the small gifts I could afford for friends and family, or for my day-to-day necessities, I could hum along with instrumental carols, singing these Pagan lyrics in my head.  It felt subversive. It also felt like maybe I wasn’t so alone, after all.

    Yes, we need to be writing our own music.  And there are rather a few artists out there doing so.  T. Thorn Coyle and Sharon Knight’s song, “Solstice Prayer” is what we used in my church’s Yule celebration.  Lisa Thiel’s “Winter Solstice Song” is another excellent choice.  Mother Tongue have a whole Yuletide album that is well worth picking up.  

    But at the same time, I think the work that went into the “Paganised” carols is valuable and holds a great deal of meaning.  Not only from the stand-point of the folk musical tradition (I’ll let one of the musicologists in your readership address that to greater detail if there’s interest — I’m not a musician, I’m just a DJ), but also from an interfaith standpoint… to whit, I offer up one of my favourite of the “Paganised” carols, my understanding is that it is attributable to Ellen Reed.  Disagree with the universalist message  of the words if you like, but the sentiment is worth remembering.Share the Light 
     — to the tune of Silent Night
    On this Winter holiday, let us stop and recallThat this season is holy to one and to all.Unto some a Son is born, unto us comes a Sun,And we know, if they don’t that all paths are one.Chorus:Share the light, share the light!Share the light, share the Light!All paths are one on this holy night!Be it Chanukah or Yule,Christmas time or Solstice night,All celebrate the eternal light.Lighted tree or burning log,Or eight candle flames.All gods are one god, whatever their names.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thank you for sharing this story, Áine. I’m grateful to you.

      I appreciate that I’m getting this kind of feedback. Clearly the rewritten Christmas carols have resonance for many people, even if they inspire a different reaction from others. It’s true – there are musicians like Coyle and Knight who have begun a tradition of creation that will leave a legacy for future generations. There should be more of that work, I think.

      The question is: what story do we tell in our song? Do we share this universal story, like the one that you’ve shared here, or do we create tradition-specific art…

      All interesting things to muse on, no?

      1. Áine Avatar

        I think we take a little from column a and a little from column b.  I think we  tell the universal story of the season of Light – no matter what form it takes – and I think we tell the story of our faith.

        Beyond that — and something *each* of us can do regardless of our own musical talent, education or ability — we need to support our Pagan artists. 
        How many of us have heard and shared with a friend, Circle, Grove, or gathering the music of Damh the Bard, Lisa Thiel, Gaia Consort, Spiral Dance, Faith and the Muse, Alexander James Adams, Mother Tongue, SJ Tucker, Heather Alexander, Omnia, Elaine Silver, Ana Winter… the list goes on through names both famous and near-unheard of.  We can clamour for more Pagan music all we want, but we need to support the artists we *have*… not to mention, show the labels, venues, etc. that it sells.

        1. Teo Bishop Avatar

          Brilliant point! Thank you for sharing that list of artists, Áine. I have a feeling many of my readers will appreciate that. I know I do.

          1. Vermillion Avatar

            This reader definitely appreciates that list, I had heard of some of those artists but Mother Tongue, Elaine Silver & Ana Winter are new to me!

  15. Corc Hamr Avatar
    Corc Hamr

    On the one hand, Pagan parodies of Christmas songs (in general) do not bother me too much. Back in the 1600’s and on into the late 1800’s, the most popular songs were often written to older and familiar tunes. Take What Child Is This, written to the tune of Greensleeves. The Minstrel Boy was sung to at least four different tunes, only one of which being the familiar and upbeat march that most know today. The tune of Health to the Company was used for quite a collection of songs; I used to have a music book full of them, all sung to that one tune. Putting old tunes to new lyrics is a fairly established tradition by this point. 

    That said, if we’re going to re-use tunes for our songs as people have for centuries, I would prefer to use tunes other than Christmas songs for our Yule celebrations. Why not use some of the 50’s showtunes, or a popular country song, rather than O Come All Ye Faithful or Greensleeves/What Child Is This? I think it’s not so much a case of re-using tunes so much as finding what sound is ours for the time period. If we simply sound like everyone else during the holidays, it does nothing to help distinguish our particular flavor from another. Some Pagans may wish this, but I do not. 

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Thanks for comment, Corc, and for the insight into the tradition of reworking old melodies. I appreciate that there is a great history behind the practice. You bring up a good point about distinguishing Pagan songs from those of other traditions, and I like your ideas about bringing in additional styles of music into the Pagan repertoire.

      How has been for you, Corc, as a musical creator? I know that you’re a musician, and I’ve heard you sing at ritual. Do you have a great deal of experience with crafting new Pagan songs?

      1. Corc Hamr Avatar
        Corc Hamr

        It’s been a little interesting. It’s tough to find a good sound for the various flavors of Paganism, especially when the popular view is very mired in one style (there’s a reason for the song “This Is Another Pagan Chant”). Most of my music is very personal; my most successful foray into creating music specifically for the Pagan community was for our 2010 Midsummer Rite. There’s a rehearsal version of it on my YouTube channel (gaarik). Even there, some of it is original music, and some is pulled from tunes that I thought fit the time period (“Royal Oak”, “Come We Now As A People”, and the theme to “Legend of Zelda”). I’d like to practice more in writing original Pagan music, but that’s going to be on down the road.

        If you’re interested in learning more about reworking melodies through the ages, looking into what were called “broadsides” is a good start. *grin*

  16. Sisterlisa Avatar

    I think that there has been a nostalgia for folks who grew up with the Christmas tradition and although they have left traditional Christianity in favor or their pagan ancestry, there is something special about their memories. Perhaps a few blended songs can be a salve of healing for them. And as part of honoring ancestors…aren’t they in a sense honoring their Christian ancestors who were kind to them all those years? However, I do value the idea of protecting the pagan folk songs of yesteryear and reviving them again. On a humorous note…since Christmas stems from pagan traditions anyway..are your druid friends really taking Christian songs and morphing them?? or maybe reforming them to their original intent? 😉 and no matter which it may be… may your winter holiday be truly blessed and happiest of new year greeting to you. I thank you for the honest dialogue and welcoming atmosphere on your blog.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      You bring up a good point, Lisa. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were people at ritual who were having the exact experience you described. If the reworked songs lead to healing, than they’re good by me.

      I hope you had a wonderful Yule, that you have a blessed Christmas, and that you continue to share your perspective with us here on Bishop in the Grove. I always love to hear from you!

  17. Rob Henderson Avatar

    I almost want to go copy the post I made on Chas Clifton’s page a few days ago, but then I’d be doubly accused of laziness.  >8)

    Yeah, our Grove does carols with changed lyrics for our Yule ritual, ma ny of them with the words written by me.  Our folks seem to like them well enough.  The advantage in using them for ritual is that people can join in easily.  I always want our rituals to be participatory experiences, not static ones where the newcomers watch everyone else do everything.  If I was attending an  event billed as a Pagan Yule concert and it was mostly altered carols, I’d probable feel the same way that you do here.

    Why don’t I write original Yule songs?  Because I can ‘t write music.  Music, I don’t know.  Words, I do.  And I don’t have any music writers to work with locally, and my experience of trying to write words for an original song for Samhain has convinced me how amazingly difficult that is to coordinate.  If other people who can write original songs want to write original sons, then they should.  I can only offer to the Gods that which I can offer, and that’s words.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I appreciate the comment, Rob, and I’m glad to get your perspective on this.

      I can see how for many this use of Christmas carols makes for easy group participation, and that can be valuable. I think for me, having come off of some serious Christian immersion over the past few weeks (see my past few posts), this rang of theological or religious disingenuousness.

      I think it’s great that you’re finding a creative outlet for your writing, and I hope you’re able to pair up with a writing partner who can help pair your original lyrics with original melodies. I think that would be a wonderful addition to the ADF cannon!

      Blessings of the season to you!

  18. Zorya Avatar

    I would rather listen to the original Christmas carols.  I agree, we can do better musically.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      It’s funny, Zorya – that’s almost exactly what I said to my husband after ritual!

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I hope you had a blessed Yule!

      1. Robert Avatar

        Where is our Pagan Bach? Where is our Pagan Mozart? We do not yet have a solid musical tradition to draw from, outside of chants–which are not designed for celebration and adoration, as hymns and carols are. I am a musician, although not a composer, and Rob above is correct. It’s hard to write music that is compelling, musically appropriate, and easy for non-musicians to sing as well.    Putting a few lines of iambic pentameter to a beat does not make it music, and throwing it against a collection of minor chords doesn’t make it Pagan. 

        Added to that difficulty is our oral tradition of musical transmission. In the Victorian era (when a remarkable number of ‘modern’ carols were written and adapted) it was common for anyone of education to be able to read music. It was an expectation that you could at least follow a song book, as that was a usual part of an evening’s entertainment. Nowadays it’s rare to see anyone outside of the music industry that can read staff. How many Pagan choirs do you know? I’ve not met any, myself. I’ve never seen a Pagan hymnal.

        I would challenge you Teo, and say that no, we can’t do better musically at this moment. We have too few trained composers, and lack the ability to properly disseminate their creations. Modern Paganism seems to be largely a tradition of chant, not of song. We need to change that, first, before we will see a signifigant increase in original singable hymns.    Until then you’re going to see a continuation of the folk tradtion, which means taking old melodies and attaching new meanings–or vice versa. 

        1.  Avatar

          You make some excellent points, Robert- especially about musical training and staff reading. Since public schools no longer have musical programs of any depth beyond karaoke singing, that art may end up being lost. Oddly enough- most of the people who do know how to do this today are members of various churches with strong musical programs.  I never went to church, so I never learned how to read – or create- music.

          But while the ‘classical’ channels might be narrowed or even vanished, there are distinctly 21st Century things that can be done to extend, expand, and enrich Pagan music. I note that you only speak of classical styles and composers. There is a place for that, but let’s also consider available 21st Century styles, techniques and composition as well. Like electronic, dance, trance and similar styles. And hip-hop, rap and the like. Why can’t we use the tools and styles of today’s music to bring in Pagan ideas and traditions? A well-crafted hip-hop dance tune with Pagan lyrics could do more to bust down the wall than  nearly anything- especially if it has a viral video to accompany it.

          I never learned how to read or write music. But I sure can (and will!) learn to take a Digital Audio Workstation and use Virtual Studio Technology to create music and styles that speak of the living traditions of today. If someone hands me some cleanly recorded a-capella Pagan chant lyrics, I can warp them to a kick-ass beat and unleash that on the world. We can dance it out.

          Let’s do so.

          1. Teo Bishop Avatar

            Wicked, Sunfell. I love the spiritedness of your comment.

            I’d love it, too, if Pagans took modern tools and used them to fashion new sounds and new songs — especially if Pagans were the progressive, cutting-edge voices in music production.

            Have you seen this post on the Wild Hunt?:

            There are several references to progressive, established or up and coming artists who’s music might be inspiring to modern Pagans. I’d love to know your take on any of them.

        2.  Avatar


          I would like to add my support to Robert’s comments.

          I am one of those “Pagan composers,” and I have the wonderful good fortune of having one of my works performed this January 7 in Denver (and again, later in the spring, and yes, we plan to record.) The music is called the Missa Druidica, and it is an explicitly liturgical work based upon the Druidic fire and sun rites of OBOD. Is it Bach or Brahms or Mozart? That is a decision that is invariably made long after the composer is dead, and very few make that cut — however, it is in the STYLE of Bach, Brahms, and Mozart. It has brought tears to more than one pair of eyes, which is, I think, the most that any living composer can ask for.

          The work is being sung by the Orpheus Pagan Chamber Choir, which is an explicitly Pagan choir. According to Andrew, its director, it is the only one in the US — at least, the only one he has been able to find.

          Artists like Loreena McKennitt or Enya are Pagan, though they don’t make a big deal of billing themselves that way, and their music is original. Artists like Nickomo and Damh the Bard are Pagan and write their own music. Sir John Tavener writes “big” compositions for symphony orchestras that draw from explicitly Pagan themes, such as his Ikon of Eros.

          So we certainly do exist. 

          As Robert points out, however, the economics and culture of music have changed.

          During the periods when the great composers were creating their masterpieces, great music was a part of the commons: to have great music was part of what it meant to be “civilized.” If you didn’t have great music, great musicians, and great composers, you were uncivilized.

          That concept has been entirely replaced by music as a privatized commodity. The “music business” has no interest whatsoever in music: its interest is in marketing an entertainment commodity to maximize its profits. It is about ownership rights and making money. It is about pandering to an increasingly musically illiterate and disinterested public to capture market share.

          I was recently reading up on “congregational singing,” in the interests of making the hymn “Here in Peace and Love” from the Missa Druidica more accessible to untrained singers. What I found is that I’m pretty much screwed. The tune spans a full octave, and while spanning even more than an octave was very common in church congregations of the 1800’s, few modern congregations can manage more than about a fifth or a sixth. 

          The Pagan D Minor Dirge is not a feature of neo-Paganism: it is a feature of the atrophied voices of modern human beings. Just as our bodies have become obese and our minds have become dull, our voices have become a tuneless mumble.

          All the better to market to.

          Your hunger for quality music is not going to be addressed by hip-hop tunes with a “kick-ass” beat and Pagan words. That isn’t the problem.

          You might be interested in Nickomo’s various songbooks. He spans a wide variety of styles, beautifully harmonized and arranged, and within reach of the Modern Mumble.

          I’d like to add in passing that this decline of music seems to be a primarily US phenomenon. I’ve been singing with a well-travelled group in Fort Collins, and they say that people in England are quite keen on singing — everywhere you go there are little volunteer chorales and groups that sing together. And I remember a conversation with a composer on a train in Germany back in 2002, who said that her brother was a US composer in the movie business, and that for him, music was like climbing a waterfall (and not a frozen one) — yeah, yeah, you wrote something great, but what did you do for me TODAY? She said it was a very different matter in Germany. 

          1. Ian Phanes Avatar

            Artists like Loreena McKennitt or Enya are Pagan

            Do you have solid evidence to support that?

            According to the Wikipedia entry for Enya:
            In addition to performing for the Pope, the singer participated in a
            live broadcast on British television for Christmas Eve in 1997, before
            she flew home to County  Donegal to join her family at midnight Mass. She still sings in her mother’s choir every Christmas at midnight Mass, at St. Mary’s Church.

            Just because pagans like their music doesn’t say anything about their religiosity.

          2.  Avatar

            Not one shred of evidence, and I stand corrected. Teo (who is Pagan) spent his Christmas singing Christmas carols in church, and as you say, what a musician performs has little bearing on what they believe. A great many atheists sing in church choirs in the US — where else would they get to sing?  

            I should have said that these artists, and many others, write music and perform songs that are unlikely to cause friction with the Pagan members of their audiences. Will that do?

          3. Ian Phanes Avatar

            Oh, I think you could go a bit farther than that.  Many pagans–myself included–use some of their songs as ritual music.  And it’s certainly possible to find pagan themes in their songs.

            My only objection was to defining *the people* as pagan.

        3. Teo Bishop Avatar

          Hmmm…. a challenge. 🙂

          My thought is that the songs must lead the way. If the songs exist, they can be learned — be that through regular playing at ritual, or through a more formal dissemination. There may not be many people who can read sheet music, but we do have the advantage of living in an age where we can easily record music. That’s something we’ve got over the Victorians.

          I don’t think musicians need to be classically trained to be effective songwriters. I think first and foremost they need something to write about. THAT, I think, might be where the conversations should begin in the more creatively-inclined corners of our gatherings. What are the messages we wish to carry forth in our song? Are we going to write new Pagan hymns about Old Word mythologies? Are we going to write about the changing of the seasons? Are we going to write about the discord between modernity and nature?

          Perhaps it isn’t that we need a Pagan Bach or a Pagan Mozart, but rather a Pagan Dylan or a Pagan Guthrie.

          1. Ian Phanes Avatar

            Perhaps it isn’t that we need a Pagan Bach or a Pagan Mozart, but rather a Pagan Dylan or a Pagan Guthrie.

            Gwydion Pendderwen did that in 1975, when he released “Songs for the Old Religion,” which includes songs for most of the sabbats.  But very few pagans seem to have learned his songs, and fewer to include them in ritual.

  19.  Avatar

    In some ways, the re-appropriation of old Christian carols is simply the circle being completed, since many of the traditions being sung about were swiped from original Pagan folkways and given Christian gilding. If I have any real objection to them, the sample above is an illustration- total lack of proper scansion and lyrical construction. I could NOT sing that. Good songs need flow and imagery. Even re-purposed ones.

    Worse, the re-purposing of now-Christian carols smacks of a lack of originality and imagination, and while it might do in a pinch, what is really needed is a total rebuilding and reclaiming of our traditions.

    I’d love to see a creative team do a musical show about all the things that Christians have absorbed into their holiday- from the tree to the nativity scene itself, reclaiming each and every one of them.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I can sees what you’re saying, Sunfell, and the same thought occurred to me last night. This does feel like a part of some sort of continuation of re-appropriation or re-purposing. But, your point about the “lack of originality” is where it really hit me. That’s the fire I’m talking about.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      1.  Avatar

        Check my reply above to Robert for some ideas.

    2. Laurel Avatar

      Hi Sunfell –
      I agree with what you said about the lack of flow and imagery and scansion in the cited example. The songs have to be good, or nobody is going to be singing them for very long.
      A composer friend of mine once said, “all the intention in the world can’t fix a crap tune.”  That is something to wrestle with, I think.

  20. Druidkirk Avatar

    Frankly, I couldn’t agree with you more. Paganizing Christian carols always creeped me out. We did try it once in our Grove back in Tucson, but we didn’t do it again after that. 

    You ask, are our traditions inspiring us to create? I think they are, but it’s a long process. How many of us actually have the talent to write good stuff? The ones I know in the ADF Bardic Guild are doing so, I’m happy to say. Give us a couple of centuries and we’ll have a complete canon! (grin)

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      Glad to hear from you, Rev. Kirk, and a blessed Yule to you!

      I’m glad to hear that the ADF Bardic Guild is producing good work. I hope to hear some of that soon. Perhaps there will be a display of some of it at Pantheacon? I’m attending this year, and I would love to connect with you and other ADF Druids.

      As for waiting 200 years…. we better get to cracking! I’ve probably only got another good 60 or 70 left in me!