Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, , at sacred-texts.com
The French Noël—Latin Hymnody in Eighteenth-century France—Spanish Christmas Verse—Traditional Carols of Many Countries—Christmas Poetry in Protestant Germany—Post-Reformation Verse in England—Modern English Carols.
(Musée Condé, Chantilly.)
The Reformation marks a change in the character of Christmas poetry in England and the larger part of Germany, and, instead of following its development under Protestantism, it will be well to break off and turn awhile to countries where Catholic tradition remained unbroken. We shall come back later to Post-Reformation England and Protestant Germany.
In French 3-1 there is little or no Christmas poetry, religious in character, before the fifteenth century; the earlier carols that have come down to us are songs rather of feasting and worldly rejoicing than of sacred things. The true Noël begins to appear in fifteenth-century manuscripts, but it was not till the following century that it attained its fullest vogue and was spread all over the country by the printing presses. Such Noëls seem to have been written by clerks or recognized poets, either for old airs or for specially composed music. “To a great extent,” says Mr. Gregory Smith, “they anticipate the spirit which stimulated the Reformers to turn the popular and often obscene songs into good and godly ballads.” 3-2
Some of the early Noëls are not unlike the English carols of the period, and are often half in Latin, half in French. Here are a few such “macaronic” verses:—
The sixteenth century is the most interesting Noël period; we find then a conflict of tendencies, a conflict between Gallic realism and broad humour and the love of refined language due to the study of the ancient classics. There are many anonymous pieces of this time, but three important Noëlistes stand out by name: Lucas le Moigne, Curé of Saint Georges, Puy-la-Garde, near Poitiers; Jean Daniel, called “Maître Mitou,” a priest-organist at Nantes; and Nicholas Denisot of Le Mans, whose Noëls appeared posthumously under the pseudonym of “Comte d'Alsinoys.”
Lucas le Moigne represents the esprit gaulois, the spirit that is often called “Rabelaisian,” though it is only one side of the genius of Rabelais. The good Curé was a contemporary of p. 57 the author of “Pantagruel.” His “Chansons de Noëls nouvaulx” was published in 1520, and contains carols in very varied styles, some naïve and pious, others hardly quotable at the present day. One of his best-known pieces is a dialogue between the Virgin and the singers of the carol: Mary is asked and answers questions about the wondrous happenings of her life. Here are four verses about the Nativity:—
The influence of the “Pléiade,” with its care for form, its respect for classical models, its enrichment of the French tongue with new Latin words, is shown by Jean Daniel, who also owes something to the poets of the late fifteenth century. Two stanzas may be quoted from him:—
As for Denisot, I may give two charming verses from one of his pastorals:—
One result of the Italian influences which came over France in the sixteenth century was a fondness for diminutives. Introduced into carols, these have sometimes a very graceful effect:—
These diminutives are found again, though fewer, in a particularly delightful carol:—
The singer goes on to tell how he went with his fellow-shepherds and shepherdesses to Bethlehem:—
This is but one of a large class of French Noëls which make the Nativity more real, more present, by representing the singer as one of a company of worshippers going to adore the Child. Often these are shepherds, but sometimes they are simply the inhabitants of a parish, a town, a countryside, or a province, bearing presents of their own produce to the little Jesus and His parents. Barrels of wine, fish, fowls, sucking-pigs, pastry, milk, fruit, firewood, birds in a cage—such are their homely gifts. Often there is a strongly satiric note: the peculiarities and weaknesses of individuals are hit off; the reputation of a place is suggested, a village whose people are famous for their stinginess offers cider that is half rain-water; elsewhere the inhabitants are so given to law-suits that they can hardly find time to go to Bethlehem.
Such Noëls with their vivid local colour, are valuable pictures of the manners of their time. They are, unfortunately, too long for quotation here, but any reader who cares to follow up the subject will find some interesting specimens in a little collection of French carols that can be bought for ten centimes. 3-9 They are of various dates; some probably were written as late as the eighteenth century. In that century, and indeed in the seventeenth, the best Christmas verses are those of a provincial and rustic character, and especially those in patois; the more cultivated poets, with their formal classicism, can ill enter into the spirit of the festival. Of the learned writers the best is a woman, Françoise Paschal, of Lyons (b. about 1610); in spite of her Latinity she shows a real feeling for her subjects. Some of her Noëls are dialogues between the sacred personages; one presents p. 62 Joseph and Mary as weary wayfarers seeking shelter at all the inns of Bethlehem and everywhere refused by host or hostess:—
The most remarkable of the patois Noëlistes of the seventeenth century are the Provençal Saboly and the Burgundian La Monnoye, the one kindly and tender, the other witty and sarcastic. Here is one of Saboly's Provençal Noëls:—
As for La Monnoye, here is a translation of one of his satirical verses:—“When in the time of frost Jesus Christ came into the world the ass and ox warmed Him with their breath in the stable. How many asses and oxen I know in this kingdom of Gaul! How many asses and oxen I know who would not have done as much!” 3-12
Apart from the rustic Noëls, the eighteenth century produced little French Christmas poetry of any charm. Some of the carols most sung in French churches to-day belong, however, to this period, e.g., the “Venez, divin Messie” of the Abbé Pellegrin. 3-13
One cannot leave the France of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries without some mention of its Latin hymnody. From a date near 1700, apparently, comes the sweet and solemn “Adeste, fideles”; by its music and its rhythm, perhaps, rather than by its actual words it has become the best beloved of Christmas hymns. The present writer has heard it sung with equal reverence and heartiness in English, German, French, and Italian churches, and no other hymn seems so full of the spirit of Christmas devotion—wonder, p. 64 awe, and tenderness, and the sense of reconciliation between Heaven and earth. Composed probably in France, “Adeste, fideles” came to be used in English as well as French Roman Catholic churches during the eighteenth century. In 1797 it was sung at the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London; hence no doubt its once common name of “Portuguese hymn.” It was first used in an Anglican church in 1841, when the Tractarian Oakley translated it for his congregation at Margaret Street Chapel, London.
Another fine Latin hymn of the eighteenth-century French Church is Charles Coffin's “Jam desinant suspiria.” 3-14 It appeared in the Parisian Breviary in 1736, and is well known in English as “God from on high hath heard.”
The Revolution and the decay of Catholicism in France seem to have killed the production of popular carols. The later nineteenth century, however, saw a revival of interest in the Noël as a literary form. In 1875 the bicentenary of Saboly's death was celebrated by a competition for a Noël in the Provençal tongue, and something of the same kind has been done in Brittany. 3-15 The Noël has attracted by its aesthetic charm even poets who are anything but devout; Théophile Gautier, for instance, wrote a graceful Christmas carol, “Le ciel est noir, la terre est blanche.”
On a general view of the vernacular Christmas poetry of France it must be admitted that the devotional note is not very strong; there is indeed a formal reverence, a courtly homage, paid to the Infant Saviour, and the miraculous in the Gospel story is taken for granted; but there is little sense of awe and mystery. In harmony with the realistic instincts of the nation, everything is dramatically, very humanly conceived; at times, indeed, the personages of the Nativity scenes quite lose their sacred character, and the treatment degenerates into grossness. At its best, however, the French Noël has a gaiety and a grace, joined to a genuine, if not very deep, piety, that are extremely charming. Reading these rustic songs, we are carried in imagination to French countrysides; we think of the long walk through the snow to the Midnight Mass, the cheerful réveillon spread on the p. 65 return, the family gathered round the hearth, feasting on wine and chestnuts and boudins, and singing in traditional strains the joys of Noël.
Across the Pyrenees, in Spain, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw a great output of Christmas verse. Among the chief writers were Juan López de Ubeda, Francisco de Ocaña, and José de Valdivielso. 3-16 Their villancicos remind one of the paintings of Murillo; they have the same facility, the same tender and graceful sentiment, without much depth. They lack the homely flavour, the quaintness that make the French and German folk-carols so delightful; they have not the rustic tang, and yet they charm by their simplicity and sweetness.
Here are a few stanzas by Ocaña:—
More of a peasant flavour is found in some snatches of Christmas carols given by Fernan Caballero in her sketch, “La Noche de Navidad.”
In nearly every western language one finds traditional Christmas carols. Europe is everywhere alive with them; they spring up like wild flowers. Some interesting Italian specimens are given by Signor de Gubernatis in his “Usi Natalizi.” Here are a few stanzas from a Bergamesque cradle-song of the Blessed Virgin:—
p. 68 With this lullaby may be compared a singularly lovely and quite untranslatable Latin cradle-song of unknown origin:—
Curious little poems are found in Latin and other languages, making a dialogue of the cries of animals at the news of Christ's birth. 3-22 The following French example is fairly typical:—
In Wales, in the early nineteenth century, carol-singing was more popular, perhaps, than in England; the carols were sung to the harp, in church at the Plygain or early morning service on Christmas Day, in the homes of the people, and at the doors of the houses by visitors. 3-24 In Ireland, too, the custom of carol-singing then prevailed. 3-25 Dr. Douglas Hyde, in his “Religious Songs of Connacht,” gives and translates an interesting Christmas hymn in Irish, from which two verses may be quoted. They set forth the great paradox of the Incarnation:—
Even in dour Scotland, with its hatred of religious festivals, some kind of carolling survived here and there among Highland folk, and a remarkable and very “Celtic” Christmas song has been translated from the Gaelic by Mr. J. A. Campbell. It begins:—
MASTER OF THE SEVEN SORROWS OF MARY
(ALSO ATTRIBUTED TO JOACHIM PATINIR)
(Vienna: Imperial Gallery)
By Ludwig Richter.
Before I close this study with a survey of Christmas poetry in England after the Reformation, it may be interesting to follow the developments in Protestant Germany. The Reformation gave a great impetus to German religious song, and we owe to it some of the finest of Christmas hymns. It is no doubt largely due to Luther, that passionate lover of music and folk-poetry, that hymns have practically become the liturgy of German Protestantism; yet he did but give typical expression to the natural instincts of his countrymen for song. Luther, though a rebel, was no Puritan; we can hardly call him an iconoclast; he had a conservative mind, which only gradually became loosened from its old attachments. His was an essentially artistic nature: “I would fain,” he said, “see all arts, especially music, in the service of Him who has given and created them,” and in the matter of hymnody he continued, in many respects, the mediaeval German tradition. Homely, kindly, a lover of children, he had a deep feeling for the festival of Christmas; and not only did he translate into German “A solis ortus cardine” and “Veni, redemptor p. 71 gentium,” but he wrote for his little son Hans one of the most delightful and touching of all Christmas hymns—“Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her.”
p. 72 “Vom Himmel hoch” has qualities of simplicity, directness, and warm human feeling which link it to the less ornate forms of carol literature. Its first verse is adapted from a secular song; its melody may, perhaps, have been composed by Luther himself. There is another Christmas hymn of Luther's, too—“Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar”—written for use when “Vom Himmel hoch” was thought too long, and he also composed additional verses for the mediaeval “Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ.”
The first stanza alone is mediaeval, the remaining six of the hymn are Luther's.
The Christmas hymns of Paul Gerhardt, the seventeenth-century Berlin pastor, stand next to Luther's. They are more subjective, more finished, less direct and forcible. Lacking the finest qualities of poetry, they are nevertheless impressive by their dignity and heartiness. Made for music, the words alone hardly convey the full power of these hymns. They should be heard sung to the old chorales, massive, yet sweet, by the lusty voices of a German congregation. To English people they are probably best known through the verses introduced into the “Christmas Oratorio,” where the old airs are given new beauty by Bach's marvellous harmonies. The tone of devotion, one feels, in Gerhardt and Bach is the same, immeasurably greater as is the genius of the composer; in both there is a profound joy in the Redemption begun by the Nativity, a robust faith joined to a deep sense of the mystery of suffering, and a keen sympathy with childhood, a tender fondness for the Infant King.
p. 74 The finest perhaps of Gerhardt's hymns is the Advent “Wie soll ich dich empfangen?” (“How shall I fitly meet Thee?”), which comes early in the “Christmas Oratorio.” More closely connected with the Nativity, however, are the Weihnachtslieder, “Wir singen dir, Emanuel,” “O Jesu Christ, dein Kripplein ist,” “Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen,” “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier,” and others. I give a few verses from the third:—
p. 75 One more German Christmas hymn must be mentioned, Gerhard Tersteegen's “Jauchzet, ihr Himmel, frohlocket, ihr englischen Chöre.” Tersteegen represents one phase of the mystical and emotional reaction against the religious formalism and indifference of the eighteenth century. In the Lutheran Church the Pietists, though they never seceded, somewhat resembled the English Methodists; the Moravians formed a separate community, while from the “Reformed” or Calvinistic Church certain circles of spiritually-minded people, who drew inspiration from the mediaeval mystics and later writers like Böhme and Madame Guyon, gathered into more or less independent groups for religious intercourse. Of these last Tersteegen is a representative singer. Here are three verses from his best known Christmas hymn:—
The note of personal religion, as distinguished from theological doctrine, is stronger in German Christmas poetry than in that of any other nation—the birth of Christ in the individual soul, not merely the redemption of man in general, is a central idea.
We come back at last to England. The great carol period is, as has already been said, the fifteenth, and the first half of the sixteenth, century; after the Reformation the English domestic Christmas largely loses its religious colouring, and the best carols of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are songs of p. 77 feasting and pagan ceremonies rather than of the Holy Child and His Mother. There is no lack of fine Christmas verse in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, but for the most part it belongs to the oratory and the chamber rather than the hall. The Nativity has become a subject for private contemplation, for individual devotion, instead of, as in the later Middle Ages, a matter for common jubilation, a wonder-story that really happened, in which, all alike and all together, the serious and the frivolous could rejoice, something that, with all its marvel, could be taken as a matter of course, like the return of the seasons or the rising of the sun on the just and on the unjust.
English Christmas poetry after the mid-sixteenth century is, then, individual rather than communal in its spirit; it is also a thing less of the people, more of the refined and cultivated few. The Puritanism which so deeply affected English religion was abstract rather than dramatic in its conception of Christianity, it was concerned less with the events of the Saviour's life than with Redemption as a transaction between God and man; St. Paul and the Old Testament rather than the gospels were its inspiration. Moreover, the material was viewed not as penetrated by and revealing the spiritual, but as sheer impediment blocking out the vision of spiritual things. Hence the extremer Puritans were completely out of touch with the sensuous poetry of Christmas, a festival which, as we shall see, they actually suppressed when they came into power.
The singing of sacred carols by country people continued, indeed, but the creative artistic impulse was lost. True carols after the Reformation tend to be doggerel, and no doubt many of the traditional pieces printed in such collections as Bramley and Stainer's 33 3-37 are debased survivals from the Middle Ages, or perhaps new words written for old tunes. Such carols as “God rest you merry, gentlemen,” have unspeakably delightful airs, and the words charm us moderns by their quaintness and rusticity, but they are far from the exquisite loveliness of the mediaeval p. 78 things. Gleams of great beauty are, however, sometimes found amid matter that in the process of transmission has almost ceased to be poetry. Here, for instance, are five stanzas from the traditional “Cherry-tree Carol”:—
The old carols sung by country folk have often not much to do with the Nativity; they are sometimes rhymed lives of Christ or legends of the Holy Childhood. Of the latter class the strangest is “The Bitter Withy,” discovered in Herefordshire by Mr. Frank Sidgwick. It tells how the little Jesus asked three lads to play with Him at ball. But they refused:—
From these popular ballads, mediaeval memories in the rustic mind, we must return to the devotional verse of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Two of the greatest poets of the Nativity, the Roman priests Southwell and Crashaw, are deeply affected by the wave of mysticism which passed over Europe in their time. Familiar as is Southwell's “The Burning Babe,” few will be sorry to find it here:—
As for Crashaw,
such are the wondrous paradoxes celebrated in his glowing imagery. The contrast of the winter snow with the burning p. 81 heat of Incarnate Love, of the blinding light of Divinity with the night's darkness, indeed the whole paradox of the Incarnation—Infinity in extremest limitation—is nowhere realized with such intensity as by him. Yet, magnificent as are his best lines, his verse sometimes becomes too like the seventeenth-century Jesuit churches, with walls overladen with decoration, with great languorous pictures and air heavy with incense; and then we long for the dewy freshness of the early carols.
The representative Anglican poets of the seventeenth century, Herbert and Vaughan, scarcely rise to their greatest heights in their treatment of Christmas, but with them as with the Romanists it is the mystical note that is dominant. Herbert sings:—
In Herrick—how different a country parson from Herbert!—we find a sort of pagan piety towards the Divine Infant which, p. 82 though purely English in its expression, makes us think of some French Noëliste or some present-day Italian worshipper of the Bambino:—
Poems such as Herrick's to the Babe of Bethlehem reveal in their writers a certain childlikeness, an insouciance without irreverence, the spirit indeed of a child which turns to its God quite simply and naturally, which makes Him after its own child-image, and sees Him as a friend who can be pleased with trifles—almost, in fact, as a glorious playmate. Such a nature has no intense feeling of sin, but can ask for forgiveness and then forget; religion for it is rather an outward ritual to be duly and gracefully performed than an inward transforming power. Herrick is a strange exception among the Anglican singers of Christmas.
Milton's great Nativity hymn, with its wondrous blending of pastoral simplicity and classical conceits, is too familiar for quotation here; it may be suggested, however, that this work of the poet's youth is far more Anglican than Puritan in its spirit.
Sweet and solemn Spenserian echoes are these verses from Giles Fletcher's “Christ's Victory in Heaven”:—p. 83
The old lullaby tradition is continued by Wither, though the infant in the cradle is an ordinary human child, who is rocked to sleep with the story of his Lord:—
When we come to the eighteenth century we find, where we might least expect it, among the moral verses of Dr. Watts, a charming cradle-song conceived in just the same way:—p. 84
It is to the eighteenth century that the three most popular of English Christmas hymns belong. Nahum Tate's “While shepherds watched their flocks by night”—one of the very few hymns (apart from metrical psalms) in common use in the Anglican Church before the nineteenth century—is a bald and apparently artless paraphrase of St. Luke which, by some accident, has attained dignity, and is aided greatly by the simple and noble tune now attached to it. Charles Wesley's “Hark, the herald angels sing,” or—as it should be—“Hark, how all the welkin rings,” is much admired by some, but to the present writer seems a mere piece of theological rhetoric. Byrom's “Christians, awake, salute the happy morn,” has the stiffness and formality or its period, but it is not without a certain quaintness and dignity. One could hardly expect fine Christmas poetry of an age whose religion was on the one hand staid, rational, unimaginative, and on the other “Evangelical” in the narrow sense, finding its centre in the Atonement rather than the Incarnation.
The revived mediaevalism, religious and aesthetic, of the nineteenth century, produced a number of Christmas carols. Some, like Swinburne's “Three damsels in the queen's chamber,” with p. 85 its exquisite verbal music and delightful colour, and William Morris's less successful “Masters, in this hall,” and “Outlanders, whence come ye last?” are the work of unbelievers and bear witness only to the aesthetic charm of the Christmas story; but there are others, mostly from Roman or Anglo-Catholic sources, of real religious inspiration. 34 The most spontaneous are Christina Rossetti's, whose haunting rhythms and delicate feeling are shown at their best in her songs of the Christ Child. More studied and self-conscious are the austere Christmas verses of Lionel Johnson and the graceful carols of Professor Selwyn Image. In one poem Mr. Image strikes a deeper and stronger note than elsewhere; its solemn music takes us back to an earlier century:—
Not a few contemporary poets have given us Christmas carols or poems. Among the freshest and most natural are those of Katharine Tynan, while Mr. Gilbert Chesterton has written some Christmas lyrics full of colour and vitality, and with a true mystical quality. Singing of Christmas, Mr. Chesterton is at his best; he has instinctive sympathy with the spirit of the festival, its human kindliness, its democracy, its sacramentalism, its exaltation of the child:—
Thus opens a fine poem on the Nativity as symbolizing miracle of birth, of childhood with its infinite possibilities, eternal renewal of faith and hope.
p. 87 p. 88 p. 89