Hark, the age-old carols sing

Christmas is on its way. The banks have decorated their counters with tinsel. The shop girls are sporting Santa caps and reindeer antlers. Plastic trees and toys have displaced chocolate in the foyers of department stores. But most Christmasy of all are the ubiquitous carols.

As you shop in the malls, Jingle Bells and Silent Night drift behind you. Like the perfume of spring flowers or the wholesome smell of fresh bread, Christmas music gives decaying memory neurons a high-voltage jolt. For me, at least, a single bar of Silver Bells or O Little Town of Bethlehem is enough to bring back images of nights by the Christmas tree, the taste of Christmas cake, the sounds of a lounge room strewn with wrapping paper and ribbon and giggling children.

Carols stick with you. Strong men who cannot remember three bars of their national anthem can sing Good King Wenceslas without taking a breath, with a stanza of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear as a chaser. Remember how Die Hard and Die Harder, Bruce Willis action flicks full of splintering glass, bullets and blood, softened their mindless brutality? -– by using White Christmas as background music.

The odd thing about the popularity of Christmas carols is that many of them are mini-catechisms of Christian doctrine in a largely post-Christian society. Carol concerts are the one occasion on which people tap into to their Christian roots. What are all those people thinking about as they sway and sing in Carols by Candlelight across the nation?

Although the precise meaning of Christmas as the birth of the Saviour, the coming of God “veiled in flesh”, may be lost on most of them, carols faithfully preserve and pass on the original message. Where are the theologically dodgy Christmas carols? There aren’t any. “Peace on earth and mercy mild / God and sinners reconciled,” are the words of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. “Mild He lays His glory by, / Born that man no more may die.” Sin and salvation, angels and adoration -– these are the themes of traditional carols.

Carols by candlelight attract tens of thousands of people in cities all over the world, even in Australia, where Christmas temperatures are often as warm as the ovens where the roast turkey is baking. Secular Christmas songs like Winter Wonderland, Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and so on are perennial favourites, but the top of the charts always seems to be Silent Night.

I don’t know if anyone has taken a poll of popular taste in Christmas music, but the older carols do not seem to be losing ground to cheery festive music. Carols like Deck the Halls or the Twelve Days of Christmas have always been popular. Bing Crosby made White Christmas one of the best-selling songs ever. Sometimes chestnuts roasting on an open fire do seem to muscle out religious themes.

Mysteriously, however, the repertoire of carols imbued with deep Christian sentiment seems to growing slowly, not shrinking. The Little Drummer Boy, now one of our best-loved carols, was written in 1941. Choirs are resurrecting medieval carols like Adam Lay Ybounden or the superlative Lullay Myn Lyking. And some relatively modern poems have been set to music -– like Victorian poet Christina Rossetti’s tender love song for the Christ Child, In the Bleak Midwinter with music by the British composer Gustav Holst.

Carols are so central to Christmas celebrations that you might think that they have always existed. In the English-speaking world, however, their popularity really dates only from the second half of the 19th Century. Before the Reformation there was a flourishing tradition of Christmas songs. Throughout medieval Europe, the Christmas period was celebrated with rich ceremony exceeded only by Holy Week and Easter. The oldest well-known Christmas carol was probably Veni, Emmanuel, or O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. The Coventry Carol probably dates from the 15th Century and God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen and The First Nowell from the 16th Century, along with Deck the Halls.

But in 1640, the dour Puritans came to power in Britain. Enemies of all frivolity and foppishness, they regarded Christmas as a superstitious popish abuse and the feast was abolished, at least officially, from 1644 to 1660. A comparable ban in the Puritan settlement in Massachusetts in America was not rescinded until 1681. Although carols did not die out completely, Puritan hostility sent them into a 200-year decline. In the 1820s one observer in England even wrote: “Carols begin to be spoken of as not belonging to this century…”

The tide turned with a religious revival in 18th century England. Hymn singing was an important element in Methodist worship. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was written by Charles Wesley, the so-called poet of Methodism, at this time.

Then the Romantic fascination with mediaeval culture revived interest in traditional carols in 19th century England. Antiquarians scoured the remote areas of Cornwall, Yorkshire and Wales for folk songs and published anthologies. At about the same time, the Anglo-Catholic movement became more important in the Anglican Church. Part of its program for revitalising Anglicanism was the introduction of carols into Christmas services. Perhaps there weren’t enough, because they wrote lots of them.

As a result, many popular carols date from this period. Some were composed by Victorian writers, like It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, We Three Kings of Orient Are and O Little Town of Bethlehem. Others were new texts set to old tunes or new tunes to old texts. One outstanding example of this type is Good King Wenceslas, which was written by an Anglo-Catholic cleric, J.M. Neale, to a tune from a famous Swedish-Finnish carol collection published in 1582.

Not all religious carols in the English tradition are the same. The Methodist and Anglican carols of the 18th and 19th centuries are heavily doctrinal and scriptural. This is to be expected. Protestant theology relies on a literal interpretation of Scripture and tends to emphasise the transcendence and power of God, not the humanity of Jesus, the Son of God.

The mediaeval carols and those from Catholic countries, on the other hand, are more tender and intimate. They freely embellish the Gospel narrative as if it were familiar family history and highlight the vulnerability of the Christ Child and his Mother. The lovely Away in a Manger, which is often attributed to Martin Luther, was written in this vein. A more modern contribution is The Little Drummer Boy.

There is room for both views of Christ and Christmas. The important thing for parents is to keep the religious tradition alive by singing the whole range of carols. Don’t allow the authentic Christmas spirit to be superseded by crass warblings about eating and drinking, snowflakes and Santa. (Remember those evergreen classics, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus Underneath the Mistletoe Last Night or I'm Gettin' Nothin' for Christmas? To tell the awful truth, Christmas wouldn't be the same for me without hearing them once or twice. My motto is that bad taste is acceptable in moderation.)

Even when Christian belief was relatively sturdy, there were many such carols. They can be lots of fun – “Drawe hogsheade drye / Let flagons flye / Make fires noses high” ran one 17th century carol. But the central theme of Christmas is the birth of Christ. This Christmas, if you don’t already have some, buy a couple of CDs with choirs singing traditional carols and play them over and over. (Many unfamiliar carols can be downloaded from the internet, as well.) It’s an investment in re-Christianising society.

Hymns and Carols of Christmas
A very comprehensive website which aspires to be the largest collection of Christmas lyrics and music published in English.


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