Researchers Found a Long-Lost Christmas Song

“Crown Winter With Green” has some serious archival cred—and a sad story to tell

Christmas Bells
Glad tidings! There's a new Christmas song in town. NYPL/Public Domain

Christmas songs are a dime a dozen, from traditional carols to modern-day moneymakers aimed at making hearts rejoice and wallets open. But it's not every day that a Christmas song is rediscovered deep in an archive—or that the song ends up being an unknown work from a famously promising composer. That's just what recently happened: As Rebecca Rego Barry reports for Fine Books & Collections, a Christmas song lost since before World War I has been discovered in the vault of an English library.

The song doesn’t technically have a title—rather the score begins "crown winter with green." The words were written by British poet Robert Bridges (who was once Poet Laureate) in 1890. The poem was known to have been set to music by a British composer named George Butterworth, but tragic events and archival confusion in the 20th century consigned the little-known piece to history's pile of missing documents.

That changed earlier this year, Barry writes. Archivists at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, England were tackling their backlog of unprocessed materials when they chanced across a manuscript that appears to have been composed by Butterworth.

The composer's story is a sad one: Though he was once one of his nation's most promising musicians, his life was cut short in World War I when he died while fighting on the Western Front in France. The young composer, who was just 31 years old, left behind a small body of work that became symbolic not just of a unique musical accomplishment, but what the men killed in the Great War might have accomplished if they had not died. Today, Butterworth is best known for his "Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad," which put to music evocative, countryside poems by A.E. Housman.

"The song's musical and technical shortcomings suggest that it is probably one of Butterworth's earlier pieces," says Martin Holmes, a music curator at the Bodliean, on the Libraries' blog. But that doesn’t mean the song isn't to be celebrated—after all, not every Christmas song has to be complicated. Butterworth's song has something else going for it: It's all about a favorite Christmas pastime. That's right: The song is an ode to boozing it up on behalf of Winter, urging listeners to crown the mythological season with green and let him put up his feet for a drink or two.

Looking for a new addition to your Christmas playlist? You're in luck: Not only did the Bodleian uncover the song, but it also made available a recording so you can hear it yourself. So grab a hot toddy and get ready to toast winter with an old song that will sound utterly new.

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