Here are some thoughts on “White Winter Hymnal” from Chant Claire’s Tim Backes.
I was following the pack, all swallowed in their coats
With scarves of red tied ’round their throats
To keep their little heads from falling in the snow, and I turned ’round and there you go
And Michael, you would fall and turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime
Fleet Foxes, a folk band from Seattle, once said in an interview that they didn’t intend the lyrics of “White Winter Hymnal” to “mean much of anything.” But the repetition of the lyrics three different times, as well as the catchy melody, suggest there’s a story to be told here regardless of what the band members have said.
Going around the internet, you’ll find theories on the meaning of the song ranging from possible allusions to gang warfare to acid trips. Personally, my favorite theory is the idea that the song uses the image of a child falling and bloodying the snow as an illustration of a loss of innocence. “All swallowed in their coats with scarves of red tied round their throats” almost sounds like Randy from A Christmas Story, when his and Ralphie’s mother is getting them dressed to go to school. Remember the quote? “Getting ready for school was like preparing for extended deep sea diving. My kid brother looked like a tick about to pop.”
We definitely get the idea that we’re supposed to think of the “pack” as being children. “Swallowed in their coats,” “little heads,” “turning round,” not to mention the whimsical melody. And then suddenly we get this unexpected fall, and blood. It’s all rather unsettling when paired with such a happy melody.
This sort of lyrical dissonance is really interesting to me. You see it in songs like “Tears of a Clown,” or in another more similar example to this one, “Pumped Up Kicks.” Pairing such an innocent, carefree melody with lyrics that start off happy but quickly turn dark makes the whole song seem uncomfortable and unsettling, and it’s tough to put your finger on why exactly that is until you really delve into the lyrics.
Presumably, Michael slips on the ice and falls, spilling blood on the ground. Despite this sudden fall, which one would think would be a cause for concern for Michael or the narrator, the song continues to barrel on happily. It’s like when a child falls and you don’t want them to cry, so you try to make a joke out of it instead. So if we’re to believe the fall is a symbol of a loss of childhood innocence, does that mean we’re to believe the repetition is a symbol of how we are so reluctant and saddened to watch that innocence depart from our children?
Listen to “White Winter Hymnal” below.