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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"White Winter Hymnal" is an odd song to be associated with Christmas

A lyrical analysis displays why and then some.


Christmas is mere days away, and that means the world is currently inundated with holiday music. Special radio stations and playlists leave their footprints on every aspect of our sonic lives, whether we like it or not.


I'm not going to be talking about any of those songs, though, because at this point in the month I've become so sick of hearing them all that I have absolutely no desire to play one of them multiple times for the purpose of my Senior Year Soundtrack. Instead, I've decided to examine a song that's become associated with Christmastime despite not having any particular association with the season or mood of the holiday.


...Or is talk of winter and snow really enough to place it within those ranks? Regardless of whether or not it is, the reference to bleeding would logically cancel it out and then some if I were making the call. However, the call was made on Fleet Foxes' 2008 single "White Winter Hymnal" a few years before I first heard the song. It's a beautiful track full of lush vocal harmonies, and it has a sort of timbral warmth to it that fits the season, but I just can't get past its short yet vivid lyrics and wonder why another act decided to make it a contemporary Yuletide anthem.

With the song's lyrics being so central and yet so short, I decided I'd take a stab at analyzing the thrice-repeated verse as best I could.


"I was following the pack, all swallowed in their coats"

The first line isn't sung in full until more than 15 seconds into a song with a runtime of under two and a half minutes; eight repetitions of "I was following the" precede it, with the vocal harmonies being introduced halfway through. I find this artistic choice particularly interesting given the short length and the anticipation it builds for a line without much of a semantic payoff. The first line sets the wintry scene, with the rest of the lyrics following it telling more of the story.


"With scarves of red tied 'round their throats

To keep their little heads from fallin' in the snow"

The common clothing in the scene suggests some sort of affiliation or bond between those present. A lot can be read into this scarf affiliation, and given the subsequent lines those readings are often grim and bloody... in fact, they may be Grimm and bloody, considering the use of a scarf or handkerchief to hide murder in the Brothers Grimm tale "The Juniper Tree."


"And I turned 'round and there you'd go"

The song's shortest line may be its most profound — it's so easy for people to lose track of each other, that one can simply look away for a second in life and leave someone behind. This is a truth with which I've had trouble coming to terms, as I've been guilty of doing such many times and still feel unsure as to how I should go forward trying to re-establish contact and friendship with a host of people. I could pour out my heart over this line, but I won't because the final three do much more to make "White Winter Hymnal" what it is...


"And Michael, you would fall

And turn the white snow red

As strawberries in the summertime"

...because it introduces a new color that suggests not simply losing track of someone, but leaving someone behind only for them to be murdered. The strawberry being a low-lying and wide-spreading plant only adds to the characterization provided by its color alone.


It's this conclusion that makes it so puzzling to me as to why Pentatonix chose to cover the song for their 2014 album That's Christmas to Me. It's a beautiful song, and it's vocal harmonies make for a great a capella setting (especially given PTX's talent), but the timing feels off to me. The lyrics make me wonder just how we go about characterizing a song and associate it with a particular time of year... and it leads me to believe that people don't really read into the lyrics when they do so.


¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Oh well, it's still a fun track to sing along with even considering the story it tells, and I guess that's the only thing that really matters in the end.

1 comentario


lydia.unk
31 dic 2023

You sound like the type of person who thinks they’re superior to others because of their music taste. Also, like you would say “I’m weird. I’m a weirdo,” unironically.

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