Perfect Sound Forever


Calvary-St. George's Church, NYC- annual holiday Candlelight mass; photos by Jason Gross

by Kelly Ferjutz
(December 2020)

Although many of the Christmas celebrations that we most cherish today came to us from Victoria's England and Albert's Germany, the holiday itself is, after all, some 2,000 years old. As is the case with many traditions that have some basis in a historical event, the secular and the sacred have mixed through the centuries, effectively blurring the lines of distinction.

While Christmas is primarily a Christian/Catholic observance, every religion observes some rites during this darkest time of the year. Hanukkah, for instance, almost always falls in the two week period preceding December 25. Nearly as old is the Solstice celebration of the Druids and those of other natural beliefs. The Eastern religions celebrate various festivals including harvest, and as we become more familiar with the traditions of the African nations and their peoples, Kwanzaa has become a part of many family commemorations. Nearly all combine a religious aspect with a family oriented feature.

Many of the earliest carols for instance were not only secular; they were, in fact, dance music. The word 'carol' is derived from the Italian 'Carolare' to sing, and thence 'Carola' meaning a ring-dance. The Italians however, borrowed the old French world 'querole' or 'carole' to describe the tunes used to accompany the early celebratory dances. In some cases, these new 'carols' were a mixture of old tunes with new words, and sometimes, the reverse. Whatever their origin, they were not sung inside the church. In the early Middle Ages, dancing and joyous singing were not welcome in the Church service. The Church was serious business in those days, when the Pope was the most powerful person in the known world.

"Adoramus Te" is an old Latin hymn which clearly demonstrates this difference between a hymn and a carol. St. Augustine explained the difference very succinctly when he said, "If you praise God and do not sing, you utter no hymn. If you sing and praise not God you utter no hymn. If you praise anything which does not pertain to the praise of God, though in singing you praise, you utter no hymn." A little repetitious, but you get the idea. Carols, you see, were festive and they used everyday language. Hymns, on the other hand, were solemn and doctrinal and invariably written in Latin. For many centuries, carols were excluded from all church worship. Giovanni Palestrina set the medieval words of "Adoramus Te" to the music we know today, in the mid-1500's.

Probably the oldest of the carols we sing today is "Angels We Have Heard on High", which is nearly contemporary with the event it portrays. Telesphorus, the Bishop of Rome in 129, exhorted his congregation to Sing the Angels' Hymn during the Nativity worship service, thus making it one of the earliest, if not THE earliest, of the Christian hymns. Of course, the singers during the Bishop's era would have been singing it in the original Latin - "Gloria in excelsis Deo." Actually, this carol is an amalgamation of an early Latin chorale and a medieval French secular carol. In England, it has come to be known as 'the Westminster Carol,' because it is always sung in the Westminster Chapel.

Before the British Isles were invaded by the Normans, the natives celebrated 'Jul' or 'Yule" in honor of the midwinter solstice. As a respite from the short, dark, cold days, jollity and light were brought into the home, along with the largest, dampest, and greenest log that could be so maneuvered. Smaller pine branches were brought into the house as well, and decorations of holly and ivy were plentiful. Singing and dancing were accompanied by feasts and Wassail bowls. The festivities lasted as long as the log burned, and a piece of it would be saved for lighting next year's log. Bad luck was a certain visitor if this rite was not observed. "Deck the Halls" is a purely secular carol from Wales dating back to this era; it makes no mention of the Nativity.

Saint Nicholas was, in the 4th century, the Bishop of Myra, who because of his great virtue and piety, restored to life some children who had been killed by robbers, thus becoming the patron saint of children. His birthday was December 6, which is one reason why so many countries still celebrate that day in his honor. When the Dutch settlers came to New York in the early 1600's, one of the things they brought with them was San Nicolaas. He may - even then - have worn a red cloak with white fur trim, but by two hundred years later, he had become a rather chubby person, with lots of white hair and a long white beard, and a much more elegant red suit. And white fur trim, of course. Only now, he's known as Santa Claus. His new country was so big, it's only natural that he would need the help of his reindeer in order to visit all the good little girls and boys in one night. In the smaller countries of Europe, his more familiar home territory, he avoided chimneys, however, preferring to leave the gifts he brought in various other hiding places. In Holland and France, they're left in children's shoes (when he can find them), while in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, he just hides them wherever inspiration leads him, providing extra fun with the search. Meanwhile, in England, it's the trusty stocking hung by the fireplace that is the favored receptacle.

Before Saturn became a car, it was the Roman god of seed-sowing. In his honor, the Romans held a winter festival called Saturnalia. As part of the festival, trees were decorated with gifts of various kinds. The poet Vergil mentions these trees in one of his poems. When the German Goths invaded Rome during the Barbarian era, they liked the custom so much, they took it back home with them. There it languished in varying popularity for centuries, until Martin Luther decided to use a decorated tree in his own family celebrations. Within three and a half centuries, the Christmas tree was popular in most of the world. As usual, the music-loving Germans came up with a lovely carol in honor of the tree - "O Tannenbaum," or "O Christmas Tree" - one of the most popular of all carols.

It was St Francis, in 1223, who thought that by using a crib, or creche, he would be better able to tell the Christmas story at his little parish church in Graecia, Italy. He was right, of course, and this new and informal method of teaching caught on, spreading rapidly throughout Europe. From there, the next step was the adoption of the Christmas theme by the popular Mystery Plays, and carols assumed an even more important role, as partner to the drama. First sung as interludes, before long they had gained so much in popularity that the actor-singers would parade through the streets singing their carols. It is to these early mummers that today's custom of caroling can trace its roots.

By the 15th century, another old custom had become intertwined - that of 'wassailing'. Originally a pagan custom, 'Waeshael' was an Anglo-Saxon toast -"Be in Health!"- that accompanied groups of revelers as they offered a song and a hot drink from their bowl of cheer in exchange for a gift. Before too many years had passed, 'wassailing' and 'caroling' took on one identity, intermingling the two. "Adeste Fideles" is known to have been a processional hymn in France around 1700, usually preceding the Midnight Mass. There is some confusion, however, about its progress after that. Most hymn-tunes have a name, which is how they were learned by a musically illiterate congregation. The name for this carol is "Portuguese Hymn". Although there are many possible explanations for this title, one of the most charming is that in 1785 or so, the Duke of Leeds, musician and director in his own right, first heard the tune at the Portuguese Chapel in London. He liked it so well, he took it home with him to Leeds, presenting it as "The Portuguese Hymn." The English translation of the familiar Latin words came nearly a century later.

Everyone knows the story of "Silent Night" but if not... In 1818, in Oberndorf, Bavaria, the organ of St. Nicholas Church went silent, in need of repairs. There was heavy snow all around, and with no organ, the Midnight Christmas Mass would, of necessity, be silent. In a hurried conference between the vicar, Joseph Mohr, and the organist, Franz Gruber, the dilemma was discussed. The two friends thought that perhaps the best solution might be a new song. Therefore, Mohr wrote some verses, and as he recited the first one, Gruber picked out a melody on his guitar. It was an instant success. When the snows cleared, a few days later, and the organ repairman arrived, he was treated to the story and the song. He was so impressed by the latter that he took a copy of it with him to a family of singers who toured the area. It became so famous so quickly, that even before it could be published and the true authors acknowledged, nearly everyone in Germany could sing the song. It took about 50 years before the real authors were rightfully acknowledged as the creators of this universal favorite.

"While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" has the distinction of being one of the earliest published Christmas hymns, dating to 1592. Although the tune had been popular for many years even before this date, but with other words, it is Nahum Tate's version which has come down to us. He was created Poet Laureate by William III in 1690.

As rustic bards traversed England during the 17th century, a popular greeting was 'God keep you merry, gentlemen!' Over time, that greeting became the carol 'God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.' As is much of the folk music of this time, the tune is in a minor key, which doesn't prevent its being called the most popular of all Christmas carols.

Most of us recognize at least one part of Handel's Messiah - the "Hallelujah Chorus" - a mainstay of Christmas programs everywhere. But did you know that another of the most popular Christmas Hymns is also set to Handel's music? And, even from that same Messiah. "Joy to the World" is set to "Antioch," a fugue or round. The words are by Isaac Watts, who elevated the role of guest to an art form. At the age of 24, he became a preacher, but the weather in London caused his early retirement due to ill health. Sir Thomas Abney invited Watts to his palatial country home to recuperate as his welcome guest. 35 years later, when Watts died, he was still the 'welcomed guest.'

Newspaper editors are frequently much maligned, sometimes with good reason. James Montgomery, editor of the Sheffield Iris in 1816, however, had already earned a reputation as a poet, so his subscribers were not at all surprised to read his new poem printed in the Christmas Eve edition of that year. "Angels From the Realms of Glory" has proved to be his most lasting work, although several other of his poems are still being sung today. Even Lord Byron admired the editor. The music was not written until 50 years later, by a third-generation musician, Henry T. Smart, who was blind, and dictated his compositions.

"The First Nowell" (to give it its early spelling) probably originated in France during the 16th century, as a true folk-song. Noel derives from the Latin 'natalis' meaning birth, and the carol tells of that first Christmas. The first verse is the telling by the shepherds of their story, with the refrain sung by angels. The following verses are of the three Magi.

Even though the Gospel of Matthew does not provide any information about the names and/or countries from which the Magi came, legend and tradition have made up for that lack. Melchior, a small man who was King of Nubia, brought gold; Caspar, King of Chaldea, was of middle size and brought frankincense; while Balthazar was the tall, black-skinned King of Tarshish. His gift was myrrh, or scent, which represented Christ's suffering (gold was for his Royalty, and the frankincense for his Divinity). It took them twelve days to complete the journey, and today, in many countries, gifts are exchanged in honor of this tradition. The carol celebrating these three kings is a relative latecomer - written in 1857 by an Episcopalian rector, John Henry Hopkins, Jr.

"Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" probably originated in Trier, Germany, as another Twelfth Night carol. It was first published in 1600. The harmonized version that is most familiar today was done by Michael Praetorius in 1609. Praetorius was, like Bach, part of a prominent musical family that spanned several generations. In addition to his music, he also wrote a book about music at the beginning of the 17th century and the musical instruments in use at that time. The words to this carol are thought to be based on Isaiah 11:1: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse and a Branch shall grow out of his roots."

Did the multi-talented Henry VIII really write the tune we know today as "Greensleeves"? For everyone who says 'yes,' there is one who says the opposite. The tune was so popular during the reign of his daughter Elizabeth, that even that up-and-coming playwright William Shakespeare made several references to it. William Dix, about whom little is known other than his life-span of 1837-1898, wrote the words "What Child Is This?" to that old English air, "My Lady Greensleeves."

Some three centuries after 1223, when St. Francis brought that creche into the church to humanize the birth of Christ and make it more accessible to his parishioners, "Away in a Manger" originated in Germany. The music may have been in existence before then, but no direct attribution is known. On the other hand, the words were long credited to Martin Luther, but there is no real evidence that he had any part in the existence of that particular carol. He did, however, write several other.

Most of us would recognize the music of "In Dulci Jubilo" if we heard it played; the words are a different matter, however, as there are several versions popular these days. One version has no less than six separate English translations from the Swedish alone. The song is, however, German and dates from 1360 or so, when a Dominican monk, Heinrich Suso, was visited by heavenly youths. They wanted to comfort him in his sufferings, so led him to dance. One of the dance tunes was "In Dulci Jubilo." Although this story may be found in a German manuscript dating to the 14th century, the title itself is Latin, which was the language of the Church - yet another example of the secular and the sacred becoming entangled through the years.

"I Saw Three Ships" is an old English carol, dating from the same era as "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen." It has more probable meanings than it has words; the ship - common to countries that face the sea - bringing gifts (in the days before reindeer pulled the sleigh); three could mean the child and his parents, or perhaps it means the three kings? We'll probably never know, but then, we probably don't really need to, either.

In medieval times, mystery plays were very popular entertainments, combining as they did, song and dance with comedy and drama. They were presented three times a year, at Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, and were usually based on Bible stories, sometimes from the Old Testament, sometimes from the New Testament. The Chester Mysteries were a series of 24 pageants that have been dated to 1327. How "Lully, Lully, Lu" managed to get from St. Francis in Italy to Chester in England is the real mystery.

Coventry also had Mystery plays - one such was performed for Corpus Christi by local guilds sponsored by Queen Margaret in 1456, and later by Henry VII in 1492. The Pageant of Shearman and Tailors featured the "Coventry Carol" sung by the women of Bethlehem just before Herod's soldiers came to slaughter the children of the town.

"The Cherry Tree Carol" in England was "The Apple Tree Carol" in France, and has been found in legends of Mexico as well as ancient Egypt. Poor Mary. The trip to Bethlehem was hot and tedious and in her condition too! They passed a tree laden with cherries, which looked wonderfully refreshing to her, so she asked Joseph to gather some for her. He was in a hurry, so he refused to stop. The tree, however, had other ideas, and obliging bowed down so that Mary could reach the branches and more easily gather the ripe, luscious fruit. When she had picked as many as she could carry, Joseph relented and stepped forward to pick even more for her. The tree, once again, had other ideas, and pulled its branches up beyond his reach. It suddenly occurred to him that he'd made a serious mistake, and he fell on his knees to ask forgiveness. Of both Mary and the tree.

In the early 1500's, a student at Queen's College was attacked by a wild boar while reading a volume of Aristotle. He had no weapon with him, so he jammed the book down the boar's throat, saving himself. And that's why "The "Boar's Head Carol" is sung at Christmas, especially at Queen's College, Oxford. As the platter is carried in, containing the boar's head, a soloist chants the words, while all the students join in the chorus. Other versions of the story maintain that the custom of the boar's head came from Scandinavia during the 12th century. "The Boar's Head Carol" is the first-ever published Christmas carol. Originally titled "The Boar's Head with Mustard", it was part of Wynkyn de Worde's Carol collection, printed in 1521.

While "Good King Wenceslaus" ruled Bohemia during the 10th century in such a way as to be made a saint, the music for his carol didn't come along until about 1582. His story wasn't put into verse until the mid-1800's, by the same gentleman who wrote the verses of "Good Christian Men Rejoice."

"The Holly and the Ivy" has its roots in pagan dances, when the holly represented the young men while the maidens were portrayed by the ivy. This battle of the sexes was carried into a castle by an English knight who invited his tenants and their wives to share his holiday feast. In a mood of celebration, the knight ordered that no man could eat until he who was master of his wife had sung a carol. The meats grew cold until one timid soul, hesitantly ventured forth a very shakily performed and very short carol. This same command was then directed at the women's table - who was master of her husband should sing. Whereupon the women all fell to, with such a noise as was never heard before, until the knight fell down from laughing, and enjoined all to eat. The words of the carol blend nature worship with Christianity, and are sung to an old French melody.

Taken together, there you have the traditional holiday legacy: family, fun, food, laughter and song.

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