Deck the Halls

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

When the Williston Central School chorus sang “Deck the Halls” at its winter concert two weeks ago, there were a few puzzled audience members.

Something was amiss. In fact, something was missing: the word “gay.” Instead of “don we now our ‘gay’ apparel,” the apparel was “bright.”

A school conspiracy to avoid a potentially sensitive issue? Hardly.

The sheet music came that way from the distributor, said chorus teacher Andrea Haulenbeek.

“The kids did notice, a few kids at least,” said Haulenbeek, referring to rehearsals. “They said ‘why are the words different?’ I said ‘I guess the meaning of the word today is different than in the olden days.’”

This local anecdote is reflective, at least in part, of a national discussion about the evolution of language and the holidays. News accounts in the last month have tracked concern over President Bush sending “holiday” instead of “Christmas” cards and U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) telling federal officials that the U.S. Capitol’s previously- named “holiday tree” should be renamed the “Capitol Christmas Tree.”

An elementary school in Dodgeville, Wis., found itself in the spotlight earlier this month when it was threatened with a lawsuit unless it changed lyrics used in an annual school production. A song titled “Cold in the Night” was sung to the melody of “Silent Night.”

Williston’s holiday language debate kicked off after last year’s winter concert. In letters to the editor of the Williston Observer, writers complained that the lyrics of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” had been changed to “We Wish You a Happy Holiday.”

Like “Deck the Halls,” Williston Central School music teacher Kim Thompson said, the lyrics came that way from the publisher. For any changes to sheet music lyrics, she said, technically the publisher must grant written permission.

Haulenbeek said it makes sense the publisher changed “gay” to “bright” in “Deck the Halls” since “gay” is now more commonly used to describe a person’s sexual orientation.

Still, she said in her classroom last week, “I think they should have kept it. A reason we do a few of these traditional Christmas carols is because they’re traditional, they’re historical.”

“Deck the Halls” is a secular Christmas carol, the melody of which is thought to be of Welsh origin. Mozart used the tune in the 1700s for a violin and piano duet.

The lyrics’ origins are difficult to pin down, according to several Internet sources. The English lyrics generally used today were first published in 1881, but were in use earlier. Nonsense word repetition (“fa la la la la”) was a device common in the middle ages. But the lyrics also are reminiscent of songs of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Renaissance.

Haulenbeek selected this version of “Deck the Halls” because it included a partner song.

“It’s very hard to teach kids to sing harmony,” Haulenbeek explained. “Partner songs are good for fifth graders…. [They] learn to stay on their own part while hearing someone sing something different.”

The word change was not noted in the distributor’s catalog from which Haulenbeek ordered the sheet music.

Brian Busch, president and owner of BriLee Music, the publisher of the “Deck the Halls” piece, said “I’ve always told the writers ‘be careful; be careful what you put into print.’”

“A lot of teachers are very afraid now,” said Busch, whose company specializes in choral music for public middle schools. “They are very afraid of texts, of words, of double meanings, of what teachers might think, of what parents might think,” he continued.

Busch conceded that he had never heard any specific concerns from teachers or retailers that caused writers to remove the word “gay.” At the music conventions he attends each year, however, he talks about middle school choral music: “what is appropriate, what works, what gets rid of the double meaning of words where kids might take a certain sense of a text, and twist it around to something else,” he said.

And, Busch noted, as a “little bitty publisher in a great big pond,” finances are a factor.

“I can’t afford to have a piece of music sit on my shelf and not sell any,” said Busch. “I have to be sure that what I do is going to make it.”

David Circle, president for the National Association for Music Education, said that from a music teacher’s perspective, “we shouldn’t be separating the music from the text as it was originally intended.”

“If there are some words that the teacher needs to teach what the meaning is,” said Circle, “then that’s a teaching moment.”

Busch agrees: “Teachers should use the texts of songs number one to promote the language, promote poetry, promote literature, and promote an understanding of language,” he said. “Unfortunately I have the distinct feeling that too many teachers don’t do that.”

Busch said he struggles over these kinds of decisions. When asked if he would grant Williston Central School permission to change “bright” back to “gay” if they asked, he said “truthfully, I don’t care…I’d even write a letter saying (they) have permission.”