This is a season of unparalleled beauty and tradition, but which tradition? Think of ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ for example. Our hymnal carries two tunes, #78 and #79. Which tune do you know best?
The glory days of the English carol tradition were the dark, ancient times of dances round the fire and festivals of cakes and ale. Congregational singing, beginning in the sixteenth century with the Reformation, led eventually to the carol being allowed inside the church, and to the distinctive sound of the eighteenth-century Christmas, a sort of mixture of folk music and Handel. Nineteenth-century clerics played a crucial role, writing and translating a large chunk of our repertoire, and unearthing and arranging all kinds of Christmas melodies from ages past, embracing not only traditional carols, but hymns, ancient and modern, and plainsong. Those nineteenth-century magic-makers and re-inventors took the carols that used to belong in the street far more than in the pew and turned them into hymns, with those soaring descants we so look forward to. They also took those ancient plainsong melodies and draped them in the beauty of holiness with chords sometimes reminiscent of modern jazz. Most importantly, they allowed our folk tradition – an oral tradition – to continue not only in our secular world, but in our sacred world too.
How did carols get their magic? We all know them. We know them because we know them. We never really learned them, they’ve just always been there. This gives the tradition a particularly fluid quality, able to absorb influences from all over the place, but never quite settling into a finished format. How does the second verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” actually go? Or the second verse of “Away in a Manger”? Is it “stay by my side until morning is nigh” or “stay by my bedside till morning is nigh”? Charles Wesley didn’t write “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”, he wrote ‘Hark, How all the Welkin Rings’. Huh? I had to look up what “Welkin” means. “Welkin” means “the firmament of heaven”, so why don’t we sing it like that? Charles Wesley’s friends figured that nobody knew that anymore, so they changed the words. #carolevolution
Why do we sing carols in the versions we do? Mostly, because we just do. These tunes, gathered together like outcasts from all over the world, have taken their place around our festive table where children listen, ready to carry them on to the next generation and beyond.
Most of the carols we sing have ancestors from the mountains of Austria, nineteenth-century America, in Lutheran psalters, handsome volumes of illuminated plainsong, or sturdy hymn books from Finland. In the beginning, a carol was a celebratory song, with dancing. Folk carols on Christian themes were sung in the field and around the village. Their texts often cover the entire Christian world-view, from creation to resurrection. Fifteenth-century English carols began to take on some of the sophistication of the church composer. The texts are macaronic, freely dropping Latin words and phrases into an English lyric: think of Hymn 96 “Angels we have heard on high” from The Hymnal 1982 with its melismatic “Gloria in excelsis Deo” as a good example of a macaronic text.
When we sing our favorite carols this Advent and Christmas season, we may be tempted to think we’re taking part in a long, unbroken, and unchanging tradition. However, while you’ll hear and sing the traditional and familiar during this season, you’ll also be part of the ongoing evolution of the carol. There’s plenty more evolving to do. And plenty more singing.
-Canon Dr. Maxine Thevenot