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December 18, 2013
Beautiful Christmas music
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

With the arrival of Gaudete Sunday, the Church’s liturgy now focuses with intense eagerness on Christmas Day itself.  The readings cannot contain themselves, such is their exuberant joy. Down through the centuries, the Advent-Christmas narratives have been told and re-told, yet we never tire of them.  Why not?  First, because the story is open-ended with its message of Emmanuel, God-with-us. The ancient narrative always inspires, always elevates; it again prompts us to live in God’s presence. Second, each time we encounter the story, we have lived more of life, and the Advent-Christmas readings offer new graces for the new present.  The readings are for the ages.

The Church bids us, gaudete, rejoice, the Lord is near.  In all parts of the universal Church, the liturgy is about to burst forth with music.  Cute secular songs are musical trinkets—in a galaxy far removed from the classics of music that soar in beauty, of music that proclaims Hope in our midst.  The carols and other Christmas music express unbounded joy.  The buoyant music lifts us up even in the midst of difficulties.

The First Carols: 4th Century

In singing and listening to Christmas carols, we participate in a glorious history of music making. The earliest outline of the carol is found in the fourth century with Latin hymns such as Veni redemptor Gentium (Come, redeemer of men), written by St. Ambrose of Milan and Corde natus ex Parentis (Of the Father’s love begotten) by the Spanish poet, Prudentius.  This hymn is still sung in the liturgy.

The Carol: 13th Century

A carol (French: noel) is a poem made up of uniform stanzas that are easily sung. The lyrics of Christmas carols have a simple didactic character and devotional warmth. Carols are songs of joy or of praise; they have refrains, also known as burdens, which begin the carol and are repeated after each stanza.  Around the thirteenth century at the time of Franciscan fervor, the Christmas carol began to take shape and eventually found its way to England, while the lauda remained in Italy.  The Latin words to “O, Come All Ye Faithful” originated in the thirteenth century, but its current form is found in the eighteenth century.

The Carol in the 15th and 16th Centuries 

In sixteenth-century Protestant countries, carols fell into disfavor or were entirely banned.  They were considered frivolous, especially by the Calvinists (today’s Presbyterians) who associated carols with Roman Catholicism.  Nevertheless in Tudor England, carols became popular and survive thanks to those longsuffering English Catholics who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy to the Crown as head of the Catholic Church.  They were known as recusants who preserved the faith through these carols.  “It is not surprising then to find that the nearest literary equivalents to the medieval carol survive in collections of Recusant poetry, where the spirit of the Catholic faith is dominant” (J.E. Stevens, “Carol,” New Catholic Encyclopedia 3:130-1).  One of the earliest carols of the early Tudor period is William Byrd’s “Lullaby, my sweet little baby.”

Revival of the Carol in the 19th Century

At Christmas time, we take delight in listening to or singing carols because they are so joyful. The words tell us what to think; the music, what to feel.   With the rediscovery of the carol in the nineteenth century, there is a plethora of carols which we sing today.  Some of these are: “Hark, the Herald Angels,” “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” “The First Noël,” “Joy to the World,” and “Silent Night.”  In verse, the lyrics describe the magnum mysterium of Christmas.

“Stille Nacht,” “Silent Night”

The story of how “Silent Night” came to be is one of those remarkable strokes of Providence.  The text was written by the Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, the son of an unwed mother; his father, an army officer, deserted when he discovered the pregnancy.  The kindness of the rector of the Salzburg Cathedral saw to it that the boy was well educated at St. Peter’s Benedictine Monastery in Upper Austria. 

In 1816, while the young Father Mohr was assigned to St. Nicholas Church at Mariapfarr, he penned the text of the famous carol.  It is said that on Christmas Eve, the organ broke down due to recent flooding.  What to do?  He improvised taking the text to a nearby village where his organist-friend Franz Gruber lived.  In a few short hours, Gruber produced the renowned hymn with an accompaniment for lyre-guitar, popular in the nineteenth century.  “Silent Night” has become one of the most beloved hymns of the Christmas repertoire.  The slightly-altered carol is today an Austrian national treasure. Traditionally it is not sung until Christmas Eve.

Christmas Customs

Like Advent traditions, Christmas customs can be easily explained to children, for example, the Christmas crib: St. Francis of Assisi popularized the crèche scene.  Mistletoe was a sacred plant of the Druids and symbolized good luck and happiness. The holly branch symbolizes Mary’s heart filled with a flaming love for God. 

The origin of the Christmas tree combines two medieval religious symbols: the Paradise Tree and the Christmas Light.  Christ as the Christmas light finds expression in a candle that is placed in the window to symbolize Christ the Light of the world. 

The home of the poinsettia is in Central America.  It resembles the star of Bethlehem.  In Mexico, it is called the “Flower of the Night.”  Laurel wreaths are a custom of ancient Rome and symbolize a friendly greeting, victory, and joy of a celebration.  The Christmas pageant helps children to re-enact the first Christmas and to pay homage to the Infant King.                         

Origin of the Carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

We are all familiar with the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which appeared in England in the eighteenth century, a time when Catholic persecution was still intense.  Not until 1829, with the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act, was Catholic persecution in England officially ended.  The carol has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to Catholics of the time. Each element in the carol has a code word for a Catholic religious tenet which the children could remember.

“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree.”   The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.

“On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtle doves.”  Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments.  The fun of the song is to repeat the previous number and its lyrics–all in one deep breath!

“On the third of day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three French hens.” Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.

“On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four calling birds.” The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

“On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five golden rings.” The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.

“On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me six geese a-laying.”  The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.

“On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming.”   Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge piety, and fear of the Lord.

“On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight maids a-milking.” The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.

“On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing.”  Nine ladies dancing were the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

“On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ten lords a-leaping.” The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.

“On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping.”  The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.

“On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming.” The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.    

A Suggested Discography of Beautiful Christmas Music

If you wish to buy a lasting Christmas gift for yourself or for another, here are some suggestions of classical music:

1. Festival of Lessons and Carols by Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/ Conducted by Stephen Cleobury (2009)

2. Festival of Lessons and Carols by St. John’s Cathedral, Denver Colorado/Conducted by Donald Pearson (reissued from 1998)

3. A Renaissance Christmas  New York’s Ensemble for Early Music/ Frederick Renz, Director

4. A Renaissance Christmas Celebration with the Waverly Consort (1991)

5. Christmas Music by Gloria Dei Cantores (available from Paraclete Press)

6. Christmas Music by Benedictine Monks of Solesmes (available from Paraclete Press)

7. A Renaissance Christmas by Joel Cohen/The Boston Camerata (2005)

8. Messiah Complete, George Friedrich Händel, conducted by John Eliot Gardner

9. Christmas Oratorio, Johann Sebastian Bach, conducted by John Eliot Gardner

A joyful Christmas to you and your families. This column will resume in January, 2014. 

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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