December 8, 2006

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Christmas carols, so full of meaning

Cynthia DewesThis is a time for enjoying the wonderful music of the Christmas season.

We flock to concerts of beautiful choral and orchestral Christmas music performed by professionals, amateurs, school kids, in fact, anyone displaying the Christmas spirit.

Personally, I love to crank up a CD of “The Messiah” and sing with it at the top of my lungs. I’m sure the local raccoons and wild turkeys are edified by this performance.

But did you ever stop to wonder about the words in some of these songs? What do they mean? Are they relevant for the modern listener? Do we need a degree in Medieval Literature or Early Church History in order to understand them?

Take “Good King Wenceslas,” for instance. Who’s he? Why should we remember him? Why is he an important figure in a Christmas carol?

It turns out Wenceslas was a king of Bohemia, in Czechoslovakia, in the early 900s A.D. He fostered good will among nations, helped the poor and was a faithful Christian.

Unfortunately, he was martyred by his pagan brother. But today he is honored as the patron saint of Czechoslovakia, and immortalized in the Christmas carol written by a 19th-century Anglican minister named John Mason Beale.


Then we have “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which probably lists the strangest gifts ever invented. The music is fun to sing, but I for one am not thrilled by the thought of receiving a “partridge in a pear tree.” I didn’t know that partridges roosted in trees, or even what I’d do with one if I had it.

And when we come to the verses about “eight maids a-milking” and “10 lords

a-leaping,” they lose me altogether. I know these “gifts” from “my true love” must have some political or historical meaning. But when you’re about 7 years old and learning to sing this carol in school, you probably chalk it up as just one more adult mystery. Which it is.

When we sing “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day in the morning,” I think of Christopher Columbus’ famed Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. This distracts me from what may be the real meaning of the words, but it’s great music anyway. Likewise with “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which always makes me think of carousing in a beer hall somewhere.

“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” has to be one of the loveliest carols, I think. It refers to the lineage and birth of Christ in mystical terms. For this one, I suspend all research about the song’s words in favor of yielding to its lyrical reverence.

English carols may be among those most familiar to us, but over the years we’ve added many others to the popular repertoire. We have Negro spirituals, such as “Go, Tell it on the Mountain,” Appalachian folk songs and even operatic music from productions like Amahl and the Night Visitors.

German Christmas carols we’ve adopted are as popular as the borrowed German custom of Christmas trees. And the most beloved of these is undoubtedly “Silent Night,” whose words and music never fail to convey the truth of faith to those who hear or sing it.

That’s the thing about Christmas carols. No matter if we understand all their words or not, they offer God’s grace to us in this particularly grace-ful Advent time.

Happy listening … and singing!

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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