Search This Blog

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Christmas Carols......

are almost as old as Christianity itself, reflecting the joy experienced by the faithful as they celebrated the birth of their Redeemer. Early European carols hold a particularly keen sense of wonder and awe, since the story of the Nativity was still relatively fresh in the cultural consciousness. The people really did find immediate cause to rejoice when they heard the news; it was the hope of their salvation, freedom from the bondage of sin, and liberation from the heartless gods of old. Some of these venerable carols have particularly fascinating back-stories. The following are just a few of my favorites from Merry Olde England:


“Adam Lay iBounden”


      This 15th century carol dates back to the reign of King Henry V, when the vernacular tongue of Middle English began to come into its own and replace Latin on court documents. It was originally part of a Mystery Play, a dramatic performance used as a visual catechism for the common people, and it tells the story of Adam’s Fall as it relates to The Incarnation. Adam's sin, it is purported, actually had “blessedness" since it set into motion the process by which God became a human being to share the supreme intimacy with us and ransom us again. Also, it prepared the way for Mary to become the "New Eve” and later The Queen of Heaven, our special advocate on high.


Adam lay ibounden
Bounden in a bound
Four thousand winter
Thought he not too long

And all was for an apple
An apple that he took
As clerkes finden
Written in here book

Nay hadda the apple take been
The apple take been
Nay hadda never Our Ladye
A been heavene queene

Blessed be the time
That apple take was
Therefore we maun sigen,
Deo Gracias!



"Boar's Head Carol"


     Another medieval carol, this one refers to a Christmas tradition continued into modern times at Oxford University. Legend has it that a student from Oxford was walking through the woods on his way to midnight mass. Suddenly, a wild boar charged out of the shadows and attacked him. The student promptly produced his silver-gilt Latin Psalter and struck the beast on the head with it. The boar’s was taken back to Oxford where the student and his friends enjoyed a lavish celebration in thanks to God for his preservation and quick-thinking. Every year afterwards on Christmas Eve, the tradition was kept alive.


The Boar's head in hand bear I
Bedecked with bay and rosemary
So I pray you, me masters, be merry
Quo estis in convivio!

Caput apri defero!
Reddens laudes Domino!
Caput ari defero!
Reddens laudes Domino!

The Boar’s head, as I understand
Is the rarest dish in all the land
Which thus bedecked with a gay garland
Let us severe cantico!

Our steward hath provided this
In honour of the King of Bliss
Which on this day to be served is
In Regenece Atrio!



"Coventry Carol"


     This carol used to be part of another Mystery Play put on in the city of Coventry, the rest of which has been lost to posterity. The lyrics are somewhat difficult to interpret word-for-word, but it is essentially a lament by the mothers of children were slain by King Herod during his hunt for The Christ Child. Hence, it is actually is actually in honor of the Holy Innocence, although some mistakenly believe it is referring to Baby Jesus. Actually, some of the verses could apply, taken into consideration His Passion to come.


Lullee, lullay, thou little tiny child,
Bye, bye, lullee, lullay,
Lullee, lully, thou little tiny child,
Bye, bye, lullee, lullay

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day?
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
Bye, bye, lullee, lullay

Herod the king in his raging
Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee
And every morn and day
For thy parting, neither say nor sing
Bye, bye, lullee, lullay



"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen"

    
    Everyone knows this song, but few know its original purpose. Dating from between the 16th and 18th centuries, it sprung up in the streets of London and was sung by town watchmen to the gentry of the vicinity. This act of Christmas merry-making would earn the watchmen extra money during the Yuletide. As a final note, "God Rest Ye Merry" was a traditional greeting dating back to the time of Shakespeare.

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray

O Tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
O Tidings of comfort and joy

In Bethlehem in Jewry
This blessed babe was born
And laid within a manger
Upon this blessed morn
The which his mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn

From God our Heavenly Father
The blessed angel came
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by Name

The Shepherds at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind
And left their flocks a-feeding
In tempest, storm, and wind
And went to Bethlehem straightway
This blessed babe to find

And when to Bethlehem they came
Whereat this infant lay
They found him in a manger
Where oxen feed on hay
His mother Mary kneeling
Unto the Lord did pray

Now to the Lord sing praises
All ye within this place
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace
This holy tide of Christmas
All others doth deface



"I Saw Three Ships"


     This nursery rhyme-like ditty alludes to a legend about The Christ Child and The Virgin Mary visiting Britain with Joseph of Arimathea when he worked as a tin-trader for Imperial Rome as a tin-trader. Cornwall has is often identified as one of the main places they stayed. Joseph supposedly returned to Britain after the death and resurrection of Christ and planted the miraculous Glastonbury Thorn. It was said to have blossomed every Christmas and Easter. Even though the destination this carol is clearly Bethlehem, the reference to Jesus and Mary traveling on board ships is indicative of other journeys.


I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning

And what was in those Ships all three
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?
What was in those ships all three
On Christmas day in the morning?

Our savior, Christ, and His Ladye
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
Our savior, Christ, and His Ladye
On Christmas Day in the morning

Pray whither sailed those ships all three
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day?
Pray whither sailed those ships all three
On Christmas Day in the morning?

Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
Oh, they sailed into Bethlehem
On Christmas Day in the morning

And all the bells on earth shall ring
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
And all the bells on earth shall sing
On Christmas Day in the morning

And all the choirs in heaven shall sing
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
And all the choirs in heaven shall sing
On Christmas Day in the morning

Then let us all rejoice amain
On Christmas Day, on Christmas Day
Then let us all rejoice amain
On Christmas Day in the morning



"Gloucestershire Wassail"


     While this isn't a carol per se, it does refer to a Yuletide tradition of particular significance. The word "wassail" comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term meaning "good health". A pre-Christian custom of “wassailing” apple trees involved sprinkling their roots with cider in hopes of a good harvest the next year...and to scare away any wood-nymphs who might be loitering around the vicinity! The better-known form of wassailing involves marching through the streets with a bowl of spiced brew and singing songs that request entry into houses to partake in the Christmas feast.


Wassail, wassail, all over the town!
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown,
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree,
With a wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee!

And here is to Cherry and to his right cheek
Pray God send our master a good piece of beef
And a good piece of beef as we all may see
With a wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee!

And here is to Dobbin and to his right eye
Pray God send our master and good Christmas pie
And a good Christmas pie as e’er he did see
With a wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee

And here is to Broad May and to her broad horn
Pray God send our master a good crop of corn
And a good crop of corn as e’er he did see
With a wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee

And here is to Fillpail and to her left ear
Pray God send our master a happy New Year
And a happy New Year as we all may see
With a wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee!

And here is to Colly and to her long tail
Pray God send our master, he never may fail
A bowl of strong beer, I pray you draw near
And a jolly wassail it’s then you shall hear

And here’s to the maid with the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in!



     So the next time you’re at church with a hymnal on your lap or at a Christmas party with a mug of nog in your hand, relish the songs of this jubilant season and remember the stories behind the carols. They just go to show our mother country wasn’t called “merry” for nothing!



"With a wassailing bowl, we'll drink to thee....."



3 comments:

  1. Christmas songs, Christmas songs, Christmas songs! You've got me excited, Pearl (in case you can't tell:). "I Saw Three Ships"! "Coventry Carol"! And I think "Wassail" is the name of the really lively song whose lyrics I've never gotten my hands on. We danced to it in "A Christmas Carol" at Fezziwig's party. And thanks for having introduced me to "Adam Lay Ibounden."

    Ever seen a fascinating little book by the name of "Christmas Songs and Their Stories"? It's full of fascinating stories like the ones you've related about the origins of carols. Like the melody of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" came to the composer in a dream... he described it as "an angel strain."

    Well, thanks for making my day with the Christmas songs! You and I really must have a phone conversation in which we talk more about music!

    Happy Epiphany!

    - Katherine

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'm glad you liked my Christmas Carol selection, Katherine! And I've heard tell you are the one who picked the survey question for this issue of the magazine! Nice subject choice for the season :-)

    That's neat about dancing to "Wassail" in "A Christmas Carol" for Fezziwig's party. Do you do plays as well as English Country Dancing? Or did your dance group put the plays on as part of the program?

    I'll have to look up the book you mention; it sounds right up my alley! We can talk about it further over the phone soon!

    Best,
    Pearl

    ReplyDelete
  3. Yes... now if only I were actually capable of choosing ONE favorite Christmas carol. But I'm afraid it can't be done... how about you? Can you pick one favorite?

    I do do plays in addition to English Country dancing; they aren't really connected. This particular dance, while based on English folk dance, actually irked me in places for breaking common dance laws - but I was the only one who knew them, and I wasn't the choreographer! For instance "The lady is always right, and the men take what's left," signifies the proper position of couples in a set.

    The dance was great fun though - I wish I could send you a video! Let me know if you're able to find the book (it's a rather old one) and I look forward to our next conversation!

    - Katherine

    ReplyDelete