Everyone in Iceland knows the verses about the nine Santa Clauses that is sung at children Christmas celebrations all over the country every year. What the verse is about has always been a mystery. Now that mystery has been solved. Where does the song that accompanies the verse come from? These questions are answered here.
I do not remember exactly when I learned the verses about the nine Santa Clauses but I wasn´t old. Countless children Christmas celebrations where we danced around the Christmas tree has glued the lyrics into my memory. To learn it I drew images in my mind about it´s content. Soon, however, I began to question the text. I, like everyone who sing it, felt it was a bit strange.
The first image that came to my mind was of nine white-bearded men with red hats wading the snow down steep mountain slopes on their way to human settlements. I was surprised that the text said there were only nine Santas. I thought I knew for a fact that they were thirteen. In the middle of the nineteenth century Jon Arason collected stories from Icelandic national culture. In his vast collection of stories there are stories of three groups of Santas. One group had nine Santas, another had thirteen and the third eighteen. In fact over eighty Santa Claus names can be found in Icelandic national culture and also some names of girl Santa Clauses. Perhaps it´s best to settle on having thirteen Santa Clauses because the oldest sources say that is their number and then there is a consistency between the number of Santas and Christmas days.
Now let´s turn back to the old Icelandic verse. It´s content has always been a mystery but now it is possible that the historian Lára Magnúsdóttir has solved it. She found the solution in one of the old Icelandic sagas, Árna saga biskups (The saga of Árni the bishop). The saga was written in the fourteenth century and tells of events that took place in the last half of the thirteenth century. At that time, there was a fierce conflict between the monarchy and the church in many parts of Europe. The King of Norway had just come to power in Iceland. His scout, Loðinn leppur, submitted a new law book in the king's name for approval at Althingi the old Icelandic congress at Thingvellir. Nine of the Icelandic chiefs were not satisfied with this new law book. They sent one of them to Norway to speak their case and deliver a letter to the king with their reasoning. The chief´s name who went to Norway was Loftur. The king in Norway was Eiríkur Magnússon the Priest hater as he was called because of the conflict with the church. Loftur had difficult time getting the audience of the king. Probably because the issue he presented was considered trivial compared to what was going on in Norway due to the disputes between the king and the church. The nine Santas probably refers to those nine Icelandic chiefs.
The second image, I as a child, pictured in my mind was of a farmer from a farm called Vellir following the Santas. This farmer´s name was Jón. I always sang the verse incorrectly because I sang that the Santas were ahead of Jón from Vellir but the verse said the Santas met Jón at Vellir. Then I pictured them preparing for sleep the evening before they came to the human settlements. It is very likely that the verse refers to when Loftur finally managed to deliver the letter to the king. The verse says they went to sleep which probably refers to when Loftur is waiting to get the kings audience. This happened at a place called Jónsvellir. Jónsvellir is a territory close by the city Björgvin in Norway which at the time was owned by the monastery in Björgvin.
Who is this man, Andrés, which is mentioned in the beginning of second verse? The English name would be Donald. Of course, the child imagined Andrés önd (Donald the duck), as he was the main literary hero of my youth. I always imagined him standing aside watching the Santa Clauses walking by. Of course, the text of the verse does not refer to Andrés önd (Donald duck) but to a man called Andrés Pálsson. This man was one of the leaders in Norway who fought against the increased power of the church. The Archbishop of Norway condemned Andrés. Andrés then died in 1282 or 1283. The fact that he died as a condemned man meant that his body could not be brought to church and he could not be buried in a cemetery. Of course, the child saw real Icelandic trolls coming down the slopes of the mountains and grab Andrés önd where he stood and watched the Santas. His fate was to be eaten by trolls. The trolls in the verse, however, do not refer to the inhuman beings in the Icelandic sagas but to outlaws. According to the judgment of the church Andrés was supposed to be buried among them.
The child's last image was of a beautiful country church. The sound of the church bells represented the start of Chistmas time and the coming of the Santas to town. The reality was not quite so beautiful. The followers of Andrés Pálsson did not accept that he would not be buried in a holy ground and broke into the church. The corpse was placed there during the burial ceremony and the church bells rang in his honor.
The American lyrics starts n such a way that the listener gets the idea that this is going to be a sentimental text about how much the lover of Clementine misses her when she dies. But after the first two verses humor takes over and things get a bit sour. In verse three the lover starts to talk about the feet of the unfortunate Clementine. Feet in oversize, shoes made of boxes and a splinter in a toe causes her to fall into a lake. On the bank, the lover stands and he does not seem to think it´s a good idea to try to save her. Either he does not love her enough or he lacks courage. Clementine drowns and is laid to rest in the cemetery where she performs her last job on this earth. Being a fertilizer for the flowers. The girls father, a miner dies to and is laid beside his daughter. At first the lover dreams of their love affair but finds it inappropriate since she is dead. So he begins to court Clementine´s sister and then Clementine is soon forgotten.
The American lyrics are rather cruel and aspects of it are on the verge of moral decency. Therefore it´s hardly suitable for children. It is a bit strange that it has been used as a song for children. Many Americans have a memory of their parents singing it to them when they where children. I must say that the Icelandic lyric is better in that context. It does not raise many moral questions like the American lyrics do. At least when I learned the Icelandic text as a child the images that popped up in my mind were rather innocent. I wonder what images pop up in the mind of the American child.
It is believed that the lyrics were written and the song composed by Percy Montrose in 1884. Whether he is the original author is not clear because sometimes Barker Bradford is credited the authorship. He published a song with similar text, in 1885. Sometimes a song written by Henry S. Thomson in 1863 is mentioned as a possible influence. A song which was extremely popular among Spanish miners at that time is also mentioned as possible influence. It was the song Romance del Conde Olinos o Niño which was a tragic love song. The text was written by Gerald Brenan, a British writer who lived most of his life in Spain.
The song is really simple songwriting. It is played in three fourth and each verse is eight beats. It is usually played in F major but bear in mind that a key is just a key. Nothing is right or wrong in that regard. Just choose a key which fits your singing voice best. If the song is played in F major, it is sufficient to use three chords, F, C7 and Bb, I., V. and IV chords of the cycle of fifhts.
If you want to play the song with a C major chord progression but stay in F major, you put a capo on the fifth fret. The cords would then be C, G7 and F.
Then of course you can play the song in various other ways. For example, you could spice it up by adding chords ii, and vi in bars five, six, and seven, and playing chord V as a major chord instead of playing it as a seventh chord. Below you can hear both versions. Excuse the E bass in the last chord in the second version. It should not be there.
This song has been widely used for different purposes. The Jews and the Chinese have used it as a New Years song, the Germans have used it as a military march, sport clubs have used it as a motivation song and political parts have also done so. Last but not least it has been used as a son on children´s Christmas celebration when they dance around the Christmas tree.
The song has often been heard in movies and TV shows and many artists have made it their own. Below are three different versions of the song.
It is not known when the song was first recorded. Bing Crospy recorded the song
on June 14, 1941 and the song reached number 20 on the Billboard charts.
Here Bobby Darin performs his version of Oh, My Darling Clementine.
He seems to have changed the text a bit.
Here Neil Young and Crazy Horse play a rock version of the song. If you want to play along use the chords A, E, Bm, F#m and D.