Christmas will be different this year. Our refrigerator’s death was like Socrates’s: it began at the bottom and moved gradually upward, eventually yielding up its Freon eide to the empyrean, or at least the ozone hole. Such a death in early November raises big questions about holiday-making, or would most years, with Thanksgiving upon us and Christmas not far behind. But with COVID rampant, we’re admonished to stay home, and will, which dovetails conveniently with the fact that because of the virus, supply chains are banjaxed and we won’t get our new fridge till Boxing Day. (And refrigerator boxes are the best boxes, so there’s the grandchildren’s Christmas taken care of.)
Christmas music at Offhand Manor draws heavily on family fondness for West Gallery-style singing and Yorkshire pub-type caroling, mostly discovered through English friends. Anyone who can carry a tune can sing that way, the repertoire is rewarding and it only improves with alcohol. Once you learn the words of ‘As Shepherds Watched’ you can learn 50 tunes for it; as my friends in the group Nowell Sing We Clear have demonstrated, you can sing the words of ‘Rudolph’ to at least one (‘Sherburne’). Even holed up in twos or threes this year, you can pull off a robust performance. For The Spectator’s New World readers, a new tradition; for English ones a lovely old one to dust off along with your pipes.
I think if you know good words you ought to use them. (See ‘banjaxed’, above.) Americans agree with that, it seems, as our recent importation of ‘gobsmacked’ shows. (There’s been ample reason.) A cursory glance at Google’s ngrams calculator shows ‘gobsmacked’ really taking off here around 2010, though it’s leveled off lately, presumably because it’s a steady state.
We seem to have returned the favor with ‘y’all’. My unscientific inventory of ‘y’all’ usage over the past year or so has turned it up in Australia, Glasgow, Sweden, Singapore (in a government speech about pulling together and wearing masks) and unrelentingly in Asian Twitter posts about anime and Korean boy bands. It makes sense: it fills a need for an informal second-person pronoun that English generally lacks, it sounds friendly and rather hip(hop). But as a Georgian and a lifetime user, I must convey to y’all this bedrock rule: ‘y’all’ is never a singular pronoun. It might sound like it if you hear it addressed to one person; ‘How are y’all?’ I could say to a neighbor from behind my mask. But we both understand that I refer to a collective. It means ‘you and all who sail in you’ — your mama and them, maybe, or the people we both work with. It means, borrowing again, those of your ilk.
It’s painfully clear that none of us are likely to see many of our own ilk this year, in the season whose long nights and cold air have always drawn people toward light, warmth and one another. In Europe there are immortal traditions of neighborly visiting, from wassailing to Wren Day to Hogmanay first-footing to the guignolée door-to-door that came here from France and survives in Canada and Missouri. (Frenchly, the mendicants sing a song asking for a bit of salt pork for their beans, and a kiss from the eldest daughter.)
In my own south, several ancient traditions hold on tenuously, often far removed from any sense of their origins. A couple lend themselves to social distancing, and one absolutely requires it. This is ‘shootin’ in Christmas’, which, to stretch the point a bit, can begin with the once-widespread custom of shooting that pesky mistletoe out of your oaks with a shotgun, the better to hang it over doorways. Actual ‘shootin’ in Christmas’ begins in the night of Christmas Eve; though it’s nowadays usually represented by firecrackers and pot-banging, it survives in a few places as a visiting custom with a recitation and a real fusillade. Here is some of the recitation, with some tiny edits from me: holler it out your door at midnight and I will too. I’ll be thinking of y’all.
We wish you friends of every kind
to cheer your heart and please your mind;
Whose hearts are pure, whose hands are clean,
Whose tongue still speaks the thing it means —
Time by moments steals away
First the hour and then the day
Small the lost days may appear
but soon they mount up to a year…
the sun, the moon, their beaming light
and all the sparkling eyes at night
laid in a balance doth appear
light as a puff of empty air…
We have this Christmas morning
called you by your name
and disturbed you from your rest
We hope no harm comes by the same.
And if it be of your desire,
our guns and pistols they shall fire —
Now, since we hear of no defiance
you shall hear the art of science —
The old year’s gone,
The new one come,
And for good luck, we’ll fire our guns!
The Christmas recordings of Nowell Sing We Clear are available at goldenhindmusic.com; the shooting recitation is performed on
Nowell Sing We Four. A Tapestry of Carols and other recordings from Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band, and English Village Carols (Smithsonian) fill out the general idea. Harnett T. Kane’s The Southern Christmas Book talks about the shooting tradition and others. This article was originally published in The Spectator’s December 2020 US edition.