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Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas-y Christmas Carols

Wow!  What happened?  It's nearly Christmas!  The little kids are about ready to jump out of their skins.  A great time to put on some Christmas music!

Dear Sister: Could you please explain the origin of some more obscure carols. Good St. Wenseslaus, I Saw Three Ships, Holly and Ivy, Bring a Torch, Jeannette Isabella...they all seem religious but they are a far cry from the nativity scene and Silent Night. They are lovely though. Thanks.

 Not a far cry, really at all. Silent Night was a little ditty a priest dashed off one afternoon for his guitar mass in the evening.  It's not his fault, nor was it his plane, that it became the most beloved Christmas Carol of all time, sung by every one from Bing Crosby to Jon Bon Jovi, whoever that is.

"Good King Wenseslaus" (written by a Brit in 1853) isn't Christmas-y enough for you?  Really?  The feast of Stephen is during that time of year when we think of the poor Baby Jesus and we help the poor.  It actually takes place during Christmas Time, which doesn't start until Christmas day.  It is the second day of Christmas, Dec.26th.  (St. Stephen is the first martyr, who was stoned to death, and therefore the patron saint of headaches.)  Off the Good King goes, into the snowy night, knowing that there is a poor man out there who needs his help. A Christmas miracle occurs, heating his footsteps so that his hapless page doesn't get frostbite or die of hypothermia.  The page follows his King and trusts in him as we follow ours.

Not rocket science.  The story may not be true, but the Good King is real. He was St. Wenceslaus, the Duke of Bohemia.

"I Saw Three Ships" is perfectly Christmas-y.  It mentions Christmas day over and over and over.  It's a British song that was written in the 17th century and some people think that it is inspired by the three ships that brought the relics of the Three Kings to the Cologne Cathedral int the 12th century. (Which are most surely not there actual relics, since there is no indication how many of them there .  The number three originates for the number of actors it took to portray them in the early Passion plays.)  That being said, it actually makes no sense whatsoever.  The ships come sailing into Bethlehem, which is not possible, as Bethlehem is no where near the Dead Sea, the closest body of water.  Crazy.
And one would right away imagine that the three ships represent the three wise men, but no, Jesus and Mary are on the ships. No mention of Joseph.  Why do they need three ships for two people, and why didn't they bring Joseph?  Am I missing something here?

And it sounds like a drinking song. 

"The Holly and the Ivy" is all about Jesus and Mary and all the symbolism of what the holly and the ivy represent are explained, point blank, in the song.  It's all the song is about.  It's origins are very old, as it was a folk song about boys and girls that somehow, at some time, morphed itself into a Christmas song.  That's the best I can do.  But it is certainly not a far cry from the Nativity Scene, as it is all about Jesus and Mary as found symbolically in holly and ivy, which have been used as Christmas decorations for centuries.

And of all of these songs, "Bring a Torch" is only about the Nativity Scene.  We like to imagine what it would be like if we were there in Bethlehem when Jesus was born and this song imagines just that, only in French.  It's a very old carol, from 1553, but the music was originally dance music for nobility. Even today, little French children dress up as shepherds and angels and sing the song around the manger scene.  Sound familiar?

I'm just glad you didn't bring up that sad depressing song about the Holy Innocents. Once that thing gets stuck in my head, I can't get it out.


Unknown said...

I just purchased the book "Good King Wenceslas" for my kids this year so that they could better understand the lyrics - it really is just illustrates them. My little nephew especially loves the book as there are lots of big men and boys in the pictures. That song has such a good "moral of the story" it is a shame more people don't know the words.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sister,
I have a version of "I Saw Three Ships" that has Joseph and Mary sailing into Bethlehem; St Michael is the steersman.

When sung that way it makes it sound as if the three ships are the Holy Trinity bringing Christ into the world.

Have a happy and holy Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Hi Sister, do you have any advice, Catholic advice, for how to get through the holidays when you feel sad, depressed, lonely. I have no energy. I wish there were no holidays. All the advice I read is about how to accomplish your shopping or entertaining. I want to know how to deal with God's birthday when you feel too sad to wish Him a happy birthday. Do you know what I mean?

Dejanet said...

These are some of my favorite carols, - guess I like obscure symbolism, lesser known saints, and salty old drinking songs. Oh, and in high school french the teacher told me that my name Janet Elizabeth could be translated to Jeannette Isabella. Excuse me, I have to go get a torch...