Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, by Clement A. Miles, , at sacred-texts.com
Ancient Latin Hymns, their Dogmatic, Theological Character—Humanizing Influence of Franciscanism—Jacopone da Todi's Vernacular Verse—German Catholic Poetry—Mediaeval English Carols.
Christmas, as we have seen, had its beginning at the middle of the fourth century in Rome. The new feast was not long in finding a hymn-writer to embody in immortal Latin the emotions called forth by the memory of the Nativity. “Veni, redemptor gentium” is one of the earliest of Latin hymns—one of the few that have come down to us from the father of Church song, Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan (d. 397). Great as theologian and statesman, Ambrose was great also as a poet and systematizer of Church music. “Veni, redemptor gentium” is above all things stately and severe, in harmony with the austere character of the zealous foe of the Arian heretics, the champion of monasticism. It is the theological aspect alone of Christmas, the redemption of sinful man by the mystery of the Incarnation and the miracle of the Virgin Birth, that we find in St. Ambrose's terse and pregnant Latin; there is no feeling for the human pathos and poetry of the scene at Bethlehem—
Another fine hymn often heard in English churches is of a slightly later date. “Corde natus ex Parentis” (“Of the Father's love begotten”) is a cento from a larger hymn by the Spanish poet Prudentius (c. 348-413). Prudentius did not write for liturgical purposes, and it was several centuries before “Corde natus” was adopted into the cycle of Latin hymns. Its elaborate rhetoric is very unlike the severity of “Veni, redemptor gentium,” but again the note is purely theological; the Incarnation as a world-event is its theme. It sings the Birth of Him who is
Other early hymns are “A solis ortus cardine” (“From east to west, from shore to shore”), by a certain Coelius Sedulius (d. c. 450), still sung by the Roman Church at Lauds on Christmas Day, and “Jesu, redemptor omnium” (sixth century), the office hymn at Christmas Vespers. Like the poems of Ambrose and Prudentius, they are in classical metres, unrhymed, and based upon quantity, not accent, and they have the same general character, doctrinal rather than humanly tender.
In the ninth and tenth centuries arose a new form of hymnody, the Prose or Sequence sung after the Gradual (the anthem between the Epistle and Gospel at Mass). The earliest writer of sequences was Notker, a monk of the abbey of St. Gall, near p. 33 the Lake of Constance. Among those that are probably his work is the Christmas “Natus ante saecula Dei filius.” The most famous Nativity sequence, however, is the “Laetabundus, exsultet fidelis chorus” of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), once sung all over Europe, and especially popular in England and France. Here are its opening verses:—
The “Laetabundus” is in rhymed stanzas; in this it differs from most early proses. The writing of rhymed sequences, however, became common through the example of the Parisian monk, Adam of St. Victor, in the second half of the twelfth century. He adopted an entirely new style of versification and music, derived from popular songs; and he and his successors in p. 34 the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries wrote various proses for the Christmas festival.
If we consider the Latin Christmas hymns from the fourth century to the thirteenth, we shall find that however much they differ in form, they have one common characteristic: they are essentially theological—dwelling on the Incarnation and the Nativity as part of the process of man's redemption—rather than realistic. There is little attempt to imagine the scene in the stable at Bethlehem, little interest in the Child as a child, little sense of the human pathos of the Nativity. The explanation is, I think, very simple, and it lights up the whole observance of Christmas as a Church festival in the centuries we are considering: this poetry is the poetry of monks, or of men imbued with the monastic spirit.
The two centuries following the institution of Christmas saw the break-up of the Roman Empire in the west, and the incursions of barbarians threatening the very existence of the Christian civilization that had conquered classic paganism. It was by her army of monks that the Church tamed and Christianized the barbarians, and both religion and culture till the middle of the twelfth century were predominantly monastic. “In writing of any eminently religious man of this period” [the eleventh century], says Dean Church, “it must be taken almost as a matter of course that he was a monk.” 2-5 And a monastery was not the place for human feeling about Christmas; the monk was—at any rate in ideal—cut off from the world; not for him were the joys of parenthood or tender feelings for a new-born child. To the monk the world was, at least in theory, the vale of misery; birth and generation were, one may almost say, tolerated as necessary evils among lay folk unable to rise to the heights of abstinence and renunciation; one can hardly imagine a true early Benedictine filled with “joy that a man is born into the world.” The Nativity was an infinitely important event, to be celebrated with a chastened, unearthly joy, but not, as it became for the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, a matter upon which human affection might lavish itself, which imagination might deck with vivid concrete detail. In the later Christmas p. 35 the pagan and the Christian spirit, or delight in earthly things and joy in the invisible, seem to meet and mingle; to the true monk of the Dark and Early Middle Ages they were incompatible.
What of the people, the great world outside the monasteries? Can we imagine that Christmas, on its Christian side, had a deep meaning for them? For the first ten centuries, to quote Dean Church again, Christianity “can hardly be said to have leavened society at all.... It acted upon it doubtless with enormous power; but it was as an extraneous and foreign agent, which destroys and shapes, but does not mingle or renew.... Society was a long time unlearning heathenism; it has not done so yet; but it had hardly begun, at any rate it was only just beginning, to imagine the possibility of such a thing in the eleventh century.” 2-6
“The practical religion of the illiterate,” says another ecclesiastical historian, Dr. W. R. W. Stephens, “was in many respects merely a survival of the old paganism thinly disguised. There was a prevalent belief in witchcraft, magic, sortilegy, spells, charms, talismans, which mixed itself up in strange ways with Christian ideas and Christian worship.... Fear, the note of superstition, rather than love, which is the characteristic of a rational faith, was conspicuous in much of the popular religion. The world was haunted by demons, hobgoblins, malignant spirits of divers kinds, whose baneful influence must be averted by charms or offerings.” 2-7
The writings of ecclesiastics, the decrees of councils and synods, from the fourth century to the eleventh, abound in condemnations of pagan practices at the turn of the year. It is in these customs, and in secular mirth and revelry, not in Christian poetry, that we must seek for the expression of early lay feeling about Christmas. It was a feast of material good things, a time for the fulfilment of traditional heathen usages, rather than a joyous celebration of the Saviour's birth. No doubt it was observed by due attendance at church, but the services in a tongue not understanded of the people cannot have been very full of meaning to them, and we can imagine p. 36 their Christmas church-going as rather a duty inspired by fear than an expression of devout rejoicing. It is noteworthy that the earliest of vernacular Christmas carols known to us, the early thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman “Seignors, ore entendez à nus,” is a song not of religion but of revelry. Its last verse is typical:
Not till the close of the thirteenth century do we meet with any vernacular Christmas poetry of importance. The verses of the troubadours and trouvères of twelfth-century France had little to do with Christianity; their songs were mostly of earthly and illicit love. The German Minnesingers of the thirteenth century were indeed pious, but their devout lays were addressed to the Virgin as Queen of Heaven, the ideal of womanhood, holding in glory the Divine Child in her arms, rather than to the Babe and His Mother in the great humility of Bethlehem.
The first real outburst of Christmas joy in a popular tongue is found in Italy, in the poems of that strange “minstrel of the Lord,” the Franciscan Jacopone da Todi (b. 1228, d. 1306). Franciscan, in that name we have an indication of the change in religious feeling that came over the western world, and p. 37 especially Italy, in the thirteenth century. 2-9 For the twenty all-too-short years of St. Francis's apostolate have passed, and a new attitude towards God and man and the world has become possible. Not that the change was due solely to St. Francis; he was rather the supreme embodiment of the ideals and tendencies of his day than their actual creator; but he was the spark that kindled a mighty flame. In him we reach so important a turning-point in the history of Christmas that we must linger awhile at his side.
Early Franciscanism meant above all the democratizing, the humanizing of Christianity; with it begins that “carol spirit” which is the most winning part of the Christian Christmas, the spirit which, while not forgetting the divine side of the Nativity, yet delights in its simple humanity, the spirit that links the Incarnation to the common life of the people, that brings human tenderness into religion. The faithful no longer contemplate merely a theological mystery, they are moved by affectionate devotion to the Babe of Bethlehem, realized as an actual living child, God indeed, yet feeling the cold of winter, the roughness of the manger bed.
St. Francis, it must be remembered, was not a man of high birth, but the son of a silk merchant, and his appeal was made chiefly to the traders and skilled workmen of the cities, who, in his day, were rising to importance, coming, in modern Socialist terms, to class-consciousness. The monks, although boys of low birth were sometimes admitted into the cloister, were in sympathy one with the upper classes, and monastic religion and culture were essentially aristocratic. The rise of the Franciscans meant the bringing home of Christianity to masses of town-workers, homely people, who needed a religion full of vivid humanity, and whom the pathetic story of the Nativity would peculiarly touch.
Love to man, the sense of human brotherhood—that was the great thing which St. Francis brought home to his age. The message, certainly, was not new, but he realized it with infectious intensity. The second great commandment, “Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself,” had not indeed been forgotten by p. 38 mediaeval Christianity; the common life of monasticism was an attempt to fulfil it; yet for the monk love to man was often rather a duty than a passion. But to St. Francis love was very life; he loved not by duty but by an inner compulsion, and his burning love of God and man found its centre in the God-man, Christ Jesus. For no saint, perhaps, has the earthly life of Christ been the object of such passionate devotion as for St. Francis; the Stigmata were the awful, yet, to his contemporaries, glorious fruit of his meditations on the Passion; and of the ecstasy with which he kept his Christmas at Greccio we shall read when we come to consider the Presepio. He had a peculiar affection for the festival of the Holy Child; “the Child Jesus,” says Thomas of Celano, “had been given over to forgetfulness in the hearts of many in whom, by the working of His grace, He was raised up again through His servant Francis.” 2-10
To the Early Middle Ages Christ was the awful Judge, the Rex tremendae majestatis, though also the divine bringer of salvation from sin and eternal punishment, and, to the mystic, the Bridegroom of the Soul. To Francis He was the little brother of all mankind as well. It was a new human joy that came into religion with him. His essentially artistic nature was the first to realize the full poetry of Christmas—the coming of infinity into extremest limitation, the Highest made the lowliest, the King of all kings a poor infant. He had, in a supreme degree, the mingled reverence and tenderness that inspire the best carols.
Though no Christmas verses by St. Francis have come down to us, there is a beautiful “psalm” for Christmas Day at Vespers, composed by him partly from passages of Scripture. A portion of Father Paschal Robinson's translation may be quoted:—
It is in the poetry of Jacopone da Todi, born shortly after the death of St. Francis, that the Franciscan Christmas spirit finds its most intense expression. A wild, wandering ascetic, an impassioned poet, and a soaring mystic, Jacopone is one of the greatest of Christian singers, unpolished as his verses are. Noble by birth, he made himself utterly as the common people for whom he piped his rustic notes. “Dio fatto piccino” (“God made a little thing”) is the keynote of his music; the Christ Child is for him “our sweet little brother”; with tender affection he rejoices in endearing diminutives—“Bambolino,” “Piccolino,” “Jesulino.” He sings of the Nativity with extraordinary realism. 13 Here, in words, is a picture of the Madonna and her Child that might well have inspired an early Tuscan artist:—
But there is an intense sense of the divine, as well as the human, in the Holy Babe; no one has felt more vividly the paradox of the Incarnation:—
From “Laude di Frate Jacopone da Todi”
Here, again, are some sweet and homely lines about preparation for the Infant Saviour:—
p. 42 There have been few more rapturous poets than Jacopone; men deemed him mad; but, “if he is mad,” says a modern Italian writer, “he is mad as the lark”—“Nessun poeta canta a tutta gola come questo frate minore. S è pazzo, è pazzo come l allodola.”
To him is attributed that most poignant of Latin hymns, the “Stabat Mater dolorosa”; he wrote also a joyous Christmas pendant to it:—
In the fourteenth century we find a blossoming forth of Christmas poetry in another land, Germany. 2-16 There are indeed Christmas and Epiphany passages in a poetical Life of Christ by Otfrid of Weissenburg in the ninth century, and a twelfth-century poem by Spervogel, “Er ist gewaltic unde starc,” opens with a mention of Christmas, but these are of little importance for us. The fourteenth century shows the first real outburst, and that is traceable, in part at least, to the mystical movement in the Rhineland caused by the preaching of the great Dominican, Eckhart of Strasburg, and his followers. It was a movement towards inward piety as distinguished from, though not excluding, external observances, which made its way largely by sermons listened to by great congregations in the towns. Its impulse came not from the monasteries proper, but from the convents of Dominican friars, and it was for Germany in the fourteenth century something like what Franciscanism had been for Italy in the thirteenth. One of the central doctrines of the school p. 43 was that of the Divine Birth in the soul of the believer; according to Eckhart the soul comes into immediate union with God by “bringing forth the Son” within itself; the historic Christ is the symbol of the divine humanity to which the soul should rise: “when the soul bringeth forth the Son,” he says, “it is happier than Mary.” 2-17 Several Christmas sermons by Eckhart have been preserved; one of them ends with the prayer, “To this Birth may that God, who to-day is new born as man, bring us, that we, poor children of earth, may be born in Him as God; to this may He bring us eternally! Amen.” 2-18 With this profound doctrine of the Divine Birth, it was natural that the German mystics should enter deeply into the festival of Christmas, and one of the earliest of German Christmas carols, “Es komt ein schif geladen,” is the work of Eckhart's disciple, John Tauler (d. 1361). It is perhaps an adaptation of a secular song:—
The doctrine of the mystics, “Die in order to live,” fills the last verses:—
To the fourteenth century may perhaps belong an allegorical carol still sung in both Catholic and Protestant Germany:—
In a fourteenth-century Life of the mystic Heinrich Suso it is told how one day angels came to him to comfort him in his sufferings, how they took him by the hand and led him to dance, while one began a glad song of the child Jesus, “In dulci jubilo.” To the fourteenth century, then, dates back that most delightful of German carols, with its interwoven lines of Latin. I may quote the fine Scots translation in the “Godlie and Spirituall Sangis” of 1567:—
The music of “In dulci jubilo” 19 has, with all its religious feeling, something of the nature of a dance, and unites in a strange fashion solemnity, playfulness, and ecstatic delight. No other air, perhaps, shows so perfectly the reverent gaiety of the carol spirit.
The fifteenth century produced a realistic type of German carol. Here is the beginning of one such:—
It goes on to tell in naïve language the story of the wanderings of the Holy Family during the Flight into Egypt.
This carol type lasted, and continued to develop, in Austria and the Catholic parts of Germany through the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, and even in the nineteenth. In Carinthia in the early nineteenth century, almost every parish had its local poet, who added new songs to the old treasury. 2-23 Particularly popular were the Hirtenlieder or shepherd songs, in which the peasant worshippers joined themselves to the shepherds of Bethlehem, and sought to share their devout p. 46 emotions. Often these carols are of the most rustic character and in the broadest dialect. They breathe forth a great kindliness and homeliness, and one could fill pages with quotations. Two more short extracts must, however, suffice to show their quality.
How warm and hearty is their feeling for the Child:—
And what fatherly affection is here:—
p. 47 We have been following on German ground a mediaeval tradition that has continued unbroken down to modern days; but we must now take a leap backward in time, and consider the beginnings of the Christmas carol in England.
Not till the fifteenth century is there any outburst of Christmas poetry in English, though other forms of religious lyrics were produced in considerable numbers in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. When the carols come at last, they appear in the least likely of all places, at the end of a versifying of the whole duty of man, by John Awdlay, a blind chaplain of Haghmon, in Shropshire. In red letters he writes:—
and then follows a collection of twenty-five songs, some of which are genuine Christmas carols, as one now understands the word. 2-26
A carol, in the modern English sense, may perhaps be defined as a religious song, less formal and solemn than the ordinary Church hymn—an expression of popular and often naïve devotional feeling, a thing intended to be sung outside rather than within church walls. There still linger about the word some echoes of its original meaning, for “carol” had at first a secular or even pagan significance: in twelfth-century France it was used to describe the amorous song-dance which hailed the coming of spring; in Italian it meant a ring- or song-dance; while by English writers from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century it was used chiefly of singing joined with dancing, and had no necessary connection with religion. Much as the mediaeval Church, with its ascetic tendencies, disliked religious dancing, it could not always suppress it; and in Germany, as we shall see, there was choral dancing at Christmas round the cradle of the Christ Child. Whether Christmas carols were ever danced to in England p. 48 is doubtful; many of the old airs and words have, however, a glee and playfulness as of human nature following its natural instincts of joy even in the celebration of the most sacred mysteries. It is probable that some of the carols are religious parodies of love-songs, written for the melodies of the originals, and many seem by their structure to be indirectly derived from the choral dances of farm folk, a notable feature being their burden or refrain, a survival of the common outcry of the dancers as they leaped around.
Awdlay's carols are perhaps meant to be sung by “wassailing neighbours, who make their rounds at Christmastide to drink a cup and take a gift, and bring good fortune upon the house” 2-27 —predecessors of those carol-singers of rural England in the nineteenth century, whom Mr. Hardy depicts so delightfully in “Under the Greenwood Tree.” Carol-singing by a band of men who go from house to house is probably a Christianization of such heathen processions as we shall meet in less altered forms in Part II.
It must not be supposed that the carols Awdlay gives are his own work; and their exact date it is impossible to determine. Part of his book was composed in 1426, but one at least of the carols was probably written in the last half of the fourteenth century. They seem indeed to be the later blossomings of the great springtime of English literature, the period which produced Chaucer and Langland, an innumerable company of minstrels and ballad-makers, and the mystical poet, Richard Rolle of Hampole. 23
Through the fifteenth century and the first half of the sixteenth, the flowering continued; and something like two hundred carols of this period are known. It is impossible to attempt here anything like representative quotation; I can only sketch in p. 49 roughest outline the main characteristics of English carol literature, and refer the reader for examples to Miss Edith Rickert's comprehensive collection, “Ancient English Carols, MCCCC-MDCC,” or to the smaller but fine selection in Messrs. E. K. Chambers and F. Sidgwick's “Early English Lyrics.” Many may have been the work of goliards or wandering scholars, and a common feature is the interweaving of Latin with English words.
Some, like the exquisite “I sing of a maiden that is makeles,” 2-29 are rather songs to or about the Virgin than strictly Christmas carols; the Annunciation rather than the Nativity is their theme. Others again tell the whole story of Christ's life. The feudal idea is strong in such lines as these:—
On the whole, in spite of some mystical exceptions, the mediaeval English carol is somewhat external in its religion; there is little deep individual feeling; the caroller sings as a member of the human race, whose curse is done away, whose nature is exalted by the Incarnation, rather than as one whose soul is athirst for God:—
Salvation is rather an objective external thing than an inward and spiritual process. A man has but to pray devoutly to the dear Mother and Child, and they will bring him to the heavenly court. It is not so much personal sin as an evil influence in humanity, that is cured by the great event of Christmas:—
But now that Christ is born, and man redeemed, one may be blithe indeed:—
Sometimes the religious spirit almost vanishes, and the carol becomes little more than a gay pastoral song:—
p. 51 But to others again, especially the lullabies, the hardness of the Nativity, the shadow of the coming Passion, give a deep note of sorrow and pathos; there is the thought of the sword that shall pierce Mary's bosom:—
The lullabies are quite the most delightful, as they are the most human, of the carols. Here is an exquisitely musical verse from one of 1530:—
p. 52 p. 53 p. 54 p. 55