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Happy Sales and Returns Day — Why Now?
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Happy Sales and Returns Day


While December 26th is celebrated by a lot of people in the US in shopping malls returning gifts or taking advantage of inventory clearance sales, there are other celebrations.

It is the first day of the Kwanzaa celebration, which is explained at the link.

It is Boxing Day, a celebration of noblesse oblige when the upper classes bestow gifts on the lower and the contents of the poor boxes are distributed. Under the feudal system this was part of the “contract,” the mutual system of obligations that tied the system together.

As the feast of St. Stephen it honors the first Christian martyr, but Ireland’s Saint Stephen’s Day celebration is a bit different and is the reason for the wren on this post.

However, this post is really my complaint about “Good King Whatshisface.”

I have always found Good King Wenceslas really annoying.

This is a real guy, although he was the Duke of Bohemia, and not a king, he was a real member of the 10th century aristocracy, and he is the patron saint of the Czech Republic. He is revered as a kind man for the way he treated children and slaves. Apparently owning slaves is fine as long as you don’t kill too many.

His mother had his grandmother, her mother-in-law, strangled, and he forced his mother out at sword point. He sounds more like he was ready for Dr. Phil, than canonization.

So then we get to the song. The song says that on Saint Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas, he sees one of his peasants out scrounging up fallen limbs to heat his humble hovel, and Wenceslas carries food and a few logs to the peasant’s abode to brighten up the holiday.

At the time commoners weren’t allowed to cut trees for firewood nor hunt, as those were the rights of the aristocracy. They were allowed to pick up dead limbs in the forest to heat their homes. They would have a fire in their shacks and a smoke hole in the roof, not a fireplace, so the logs weren’t going to be useful unless they were split.

On the day after Christmas there were sure to be a lot of leftovers that would go to the kennels, so the “Good King” Wenceslas was carting dog food to a peasant, who was expected to be overcome with gratitude at the beneficence of his Duke.

There is a happy ending: Wenceslas was murdered by his brother’s goons after five years of oppressing the peasants.

The Church felt kindly towards Wenceslas because his mother was rather repressive towards the Church, while he wasn’t, so he became a martyr.

Wenceslas reminds me of all of the people who make a donation so poor people can have a good Christmas dinner, without a thought about what they have to eat the rest of the year.

[Note: reprinted from last year because the agitprop about Wencelas really ticks me off.]


1 ellroon { 12.26.07 at 1:21 am }

Well, crap. I always liked the Weceslas song because it was medieval. Apparently more medieval that I realized!

Rats. Now I’ll get to stew on this until next year….

2 Michael { 12.26.07 at 2:01 am }

I prefer Greensleeves anyhow. 🙂

3 andante { 12.26.07 at 7:13 am }

Even though I’ve always known the song was about a nasty person, I like it for one reason – quarter notes.

When you’re teaching music to beginners, it works great. No ‘dotted’ rhythms.

I’m so screwed up.

4 DCup { 12.26.07 at 8:05 am }

Well, I learn something new everyday. So cliched, I realize. Thanks for the story about that that song.

And I love the picture of the Carolina Wren. We’ve got one that’s been haunting the winter garden and the back porch. Elusive little bugger is hard to get pix of, but I keep trying!

5 Steve Bates { 12.26.07 at 1:57 pm }

What andante said. Easy rhythms suitable for beginners, range exactly one octave… what’s not to like, if you’re a music teacher? And I couldn’t possibly object to a song about a Feast of Stephen…

As to your post subject, I suppose the buyer could sing to the seller as the former exited the door of the store, “Happy sales… to you, / Until… we meet… again, …”

6 Bryan { 12.26.07 at 4:10 pm }

Andante & Steve, the music is from a 13th century carol and is separate from the 19th century lyrics.

It’s like all of the revisionist history that gets into song. The minstrels knew how to con the upper classes who had money.

The people and their lives were short and brutal. A quick death was considered an act of kindness.

Ellroon, my graduate level study was Slavic languages and literature, it’s not like this is found in most European history books.

Welcome, DCup, I owe you a spot on the blogroll, but I’ve been a bit busy lately. At least our wrens don’t have to worry about being hunted like the European varieties.

Steve, Roy will get you for that.

The older carols all have the benefit of being easy to sing by most average people.

7 Steve Bates { 12.27.07 at 12:56 am }

Sorry, Bryan; I agree you’ve got the scoop on the “good” “King” Wenceslas, but the music we know to GKW is most certainly not a 13th-century piece. It may be derivative of one, but the tune we all know is almost certainly a 19th-century tune, based on the tune and harmony alone. (Update: confirmed 19th-century origin, in the very link you provided.)

I’m trying to think of any 13th-century tune… and I know a couple… that survives unmodified in a present-day Christmas carol… and I cannot. A few come close, but conventions of later idioms, mostly 18th- and 19th-century, insert themselves into the versions we all know.

8 Steve Bates { 12.27.07 at 12:57 am }

(Jeez; that was abominably written! I need sleep… %-) )

9 Bryan { 12.27.07 at 1:34 am }

Steve, at the top of the page it says “Music: Tem­pus Adest Flor­i­dum, a 13th Cen­tu­ry spring car­ol; first pub­lished in the Swed­ish Piae Can­ti­ones, 1582″

I assumed it was adapted, but the basic tune is simple enough for even beginners to play, although it would have been vocal only for most of its history.

10 andante { 12.27.07 at 7:16 am }

Well, there’s always “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”; less familiar but quite nice. Lyrics are fourth century, music 13th.

When any of my folks mourn the dearth of the “old” hymns, I immediately pull that one out.

11 Steve Bates { 12.27.07 at 9:27 am }

Bryan, you are correct about what it says at the linked site: in my sleepy fog, I misread the section Words as applying to the music. But the tune in the MIDI, which is the current familiar tune, is surely the 16th-century version, not the 13th-century version, and I’d guess the familiar harmonization is even later, though 16th-century is possible. Thirteenth-century music simply does not sound like that. Something happened to the music to GKW in the course of those three (or four, or five) centuries.

12 Bryan { 12.27.07 at 11:21 am }

When Jimi fired up the Fender and played the Star Spangled Banner it was obviously adapted to fit the instrument and the player. Very few people have ever heard Bach played as he would have heard it, or even Beethoven.

Music evolves to fit the times in which it’s performed and the players.

I assume that the Swedish collection was transcribed from an actual performance as there were multiple notations systems, most weren’t designed to accommodate more than the basic tune for a very extended period, and were in the “key” of whoever was performing it.

Hildegard von Bingen would be rather shocked to hear her music as it has been recently recorded.

13 Steve Bates { 12.27.07 at 6:35 pm }

By the 13th century, notation was considerably advanced over the heighted neumes of about 100-200 years earlier, and there were people in the 16th century who understood how to transcribe that more advanced 13th-century notation… but I’ll bet you’re right: they did not make a literal transcription, but arranged the music to suit the current fashion.

Not until the 19th century, and especially in the 20th, did musical scholars see fit actually to want to perform music in the style of its origin, often with historically accurate replicas of period instruments. We had to relearn to build and to play the instruments well: just listen to some of the recordings of old music that were made in the 1950s.

I used to be an active practitioner of “historical performance,” on copies of original instruments (and in the case of 17th- and 18th-century music, occasionally actual historical instruments). I was something of a fanatic about performance practice. I am no longer a fanatic about that; I can enjoy 19th-century arrangements of, say, Handel’s Messiah as surely as the next person. But it feels important to me that we never forget how to do it the old way. Some things are too good to be lost to the whims of later fashion.

14 Bryan { 12.27.07 at 8:05 pm }

Actually, many instruments sound better with age, while others fail. Having worked in old houses and with old furniture I’ve been amazed that the attempts to copy the Amati string instruments. We make instruments every bit as good, but they won’t be that way for a couple of centuries of aging in the same environment. Many materials change over time, and there is no way of speeding the processing. A brand new Stradivarius certainly didn’t sound like the examples that still exist.

Most music evolves over time by passing through the hands of various musicians. I don’t imagine that many tunes that are played today and attributed to early musicians have survived in their original form. Most probably benefited from the process with early errors being corrected, but some probably lost their originality as early musicians adapted for their weaknesses.

15 Steve Bates { 12.27.07 at 10:44 pm }

The consensus seems to be that bowed string instruments get better, while woodwinds get worse. The useful lifetime of a woodwind instrument seems to be about 50 years. Even if it hasn’t cracked sometime during that span, the surface of the bore, even if regularly oiled and swabbed out after each use, seems to develop microscopic distortions sufficient to spoil the tone the instrument had when it left the maker’s workshop.

When I was an active performer on recorders and baroque flutes, I was diligent about caring for the bores of the instruments. Now, about 10 years after I retired from frequent performance, the bore has probably dried out on most of those instruments. To use them again, one would have to go through the same break-in process as used with a brand-new instrument.

The exceptions are a couple of recorders I have in which the bores are permanently sealed with some sort of urethane-like varnish. One doesn’t have to oil those, and theoretically they never crack. To my ears, they sound a lot like plastic instruments, though better because of the quality control in their manufacture. After the first two, I no longer sought out instruments with this kind of bore.

16 Bryan { 12.27.07 at 11:59 pm }

Logically the urethane would reduce the ability of the wood to vibrate in the air column and deaden the sound, while the oil would preserve the joint but allow the fibers freedom to move. After while the assembly and disassembly is like sanding with a superfine grit sand paper. You can remove a finish with the ridges of your hands as is obvious on the faces of well-used guitars.