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  • Writer's picturePru Warren

This Week in Christmas Carols

Neither Burl Ives nor Nat King Cole ever covered it (as far as I know), but there’s an old Christmas carol from my father’s four-hour reel-to-reel tape of holiday songs called “Adam Lay Ybounden.” I’ve been re-creating that reel-to-reel selection in digital form, and “Adam Lay Ybounden,” a song that has (perhaps rightly) sunk into abject obscurity, is at the top of my file—now organized alphabetically by title.

So I see it when I happen past the list. I was singing Adam Lay Ybounden this morning while brewing my tea, and found I was stumped before the end of the second line. Adam lay ybounden—bounden by a…what? A bog? A log? A fog? I knew old Adam was ybounded by SOMETHING, and it sort of rhymed with “long,” from the next couplet.

What the hell? It would be bad to be bound in a bog. You’d sink into that ever-present quicksand with your hands bound before you. Or perhaps behind you. Indiana Jones needed help to get out of that one; how did Adam handle it?

Or was it a log he was ybounden by? That would be very Merlin of him, who was himself ybounded into a tree by Nimue. Was it Nimue? Might call for another Google quest…

Maybe it was a fog. Bounded into a fog and ydoomed to wander forever through thick, damp mist. In a permanent San Francisco winter without the Fog City Diner to offer a well-lit haven and a cuppa joe.

So, tea bag now steeping, I resorted to The Google. All the combined internets conspired to tell me that Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a BOND.

Well, that’s hardly satisfying. He was bound in a bond is like saying he sat in a seat. Perhaps there could be more information provided there? Who wrote this thing?

Turns out the “song” was a scribble by someone assumed to be a traveling minstrel around the year 1400. So, more than SIX HUNDRED YEARS OLD. This kind of shit gives me shivers of delight. Whoever he was (and I’m assuming he was a he since it wasn’t an era known for the liberation and appreciation of the female of the species), his words have lasted for a very, very long time. He was hoping he could earn enough for some local feudal lord to give him dinner after he sang for his supper, and I’m pondering his choice of words in a modern kitchen 622 years later. I mean, DAYUM, Sam!

The “song” he wrote has to be put in quotes since he only wrote down the lyrics, not the notes—so it’s a song in theory. Lots of carol-writers have put it to music; the one I know was written in 1957, which was about when my father was taping his collection on his Wollensack. And I note with delight that the page on which the unknown minstrel wrote his song ALSO included a “deep cuts” called (and I’m not making this up) “I HAVE A GENTLE COK,” which good on you, buddy.

It’s as common as breathing; you sing the words to a song you learned as a child and suddenly much later realize you don’t know what the hell you’re singing about. It took until I was 62 for me to wonder why Adam’s yboundening was a Christmas carol. What did that have to do with the Christian insistence that Jesus of Nazareth was not just A but THE messiah?

(I read Reza Aslan’s book on the subject, “Zealot,” with my innocent little eyes permanently bugged out, because what we’ve been told on the subject is NOT AT ALL what went down.)

So having answered my fog/bog/log question, I kept reading those lyrics. Allow me to share the full four verses:

Adam lay ybounden

Bounden in a bond.

Four thousand winters—

Thought he not too long.

Those four thousand winters—that has a disturbingly biblical connotation, don’t you think? Given that fundamentalist Christians think that the world is 6,000 years old? (A number arrived at by counting the “begats”—a system that is almost charmingly naïve.) Wikipedia agrees; the four thousand winters is how long Adam was theoretically lost in hell before Christ’s death redeemed all us helpless sinners. For which, thanks, by the way.

I have to wonder: Why did Adam think four thousand winters was not too long? He wasn’t annoyed? Is the premise that he was so ashamed of his role in the fall of man that four thousand winters didn’t seem like enough time down there with the demons? Was he like the college basketball player who raises his hand even before the ref blows the whistle, admitting to the foul?

And all was for an apple—

An apple that he took.

As clerkes finden,

Written in their book.

You have to have that bad spelling of “clerks” because one sings “clerkies.” Two distinct syllables. I’m sure the minstrel agreed; it keeps the meter right. Plus—too cool, that “finden.” You can tell we’re dealing with an evolving language in which a third person plural (clerkes, or “them”) gets a different verb ending than a third person singular (clerk, or “he”). “Clerk” would find; “clerkes” finden. So Latin-ish!

Tucked into this verse is the core of why I have a problem with formalized religions that rely on a sacred text to decide what’s moral and what isn’t. If the clerkes had, in the intervening 4,000 winters, loaned that particular book to a neighbor who forgot about it and left it by the well and then it rained and then he appeared back at the monastery wreathed in guilt, holding out a replacement text he’d purchased at great expense to replace the “Adam took the apple” book with the early-century equivalent of “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” then an entire religion would have taken a strong left turn.

And that just seems arbitrary. Not something sturdy enough to base an entire culture of faith on.

But hang on: Bruce Springsteen and other prophets tell me that “Eve tempted Adam with the apple.” Wasn’t Eve the one who took the apple? How come Adam is spending four thousand winters in hell while Eve has vanished from the story entirely? Was this ongoing misogyny? Or was the problem that Eve's name only has one syllable while Adam's has two, and thus fits the meter of the song better?? This is very confusing. As the lord of the manor, I’d need to ask some questions before allowing my minstrel to gnaw on a roast.

Nay had the apple taken been,

The apple taken been,

Ne’er had Our Lady

Have been a heavenly queen.

Hang on—let me get this right. You’re saying that without Original Sin, we wouldn’t have had Mary, mother of Christ, watching over us in heaven? I’m frowning over that one. It’s like saying “If we hadn’t been visited with the COVID-19 plague, we wouldn’t have all gotten so good with Zoom, so yay!” Not to mention the lives of agony that Mary and Jesus endured so you could have a pretty blonde lady in light blue holding a benevolent hand out toward you from a cloud.

That’s just weird.

Blessed be the time

That apple taken was!

Therefore we maun’ singen

Deo gratias!

Whoever that minstrel was, he was putting lipstick on a pretty ugly pig, there. That took some brio—some zip. That guy pulled out quite an impressive if/then theory there. Now I really want to know what he had to say about his gentle cok.

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