I’ve been enjoying Kaptin Barrett’s playlist, Now That’s What I Call A Renaissance Christmas, filled with old and new interpretations of Christmas carols from 1400-1600.
There is something quite otherwordly about the older carols. It is partly the Latin and the polyphonic structure, but also the exuberance and sense of mystery that is tonally very far away from the standards (‘Once In Royal David’s City’, ‘Hark the Herald’, ‘Away in a Manger’, ‘While Shepherds Watched’).
The older carols (of which ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ is probably the most commonly sung example nowadays) seem to celebrate the sheer miraculousness of God made flesh and the virgin birth, and rejoice in the promise of redemption – in the depth of winters that would have been full of fear, hunger and death for many. There’s a lot of allegorical greenery reflecting the promise of spring’s eventual return, and a carnivalesque element of “It’s midwinter, we’re alive, Jesus is born, so let’s have a party!” (see, for example, the Boar’s Head Carol or Sir Christemas).
The Victorian crop, by contrast, seem much more formal, even staid. They focus on the details of the nativity, on the holy family as some sort of sentimental exemplar (my parents always used to stare at us pointedly while singing, “Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he”). The ‘humility’ of God’s incarnation and the attendance of the shepherds is underlined. The carols are more interested in the humanity of Jesus – in his ‘relate-ability’ – than his divinity.
One reason for the difference may be the hiatus in carolling that took place after the Cromwellian suppression of Christmas celebration. From this brief history, it seems that carols were only really revived in the 19th Century. That’s quite a jump intellectually from the time of the Protectorate. To remain respectable, ‘true religion’ had to be filtered through enlightenment values, and to eschew mystery and saturnalia. The Victorian Christmas carol celebrates a properly ordered society, where dignity could be found in the lowliest conditions, where trumpets acclaim the majesty of God, and where the family is held sacred as the foundational unit of social structure.
But the long list of things I am inexpert in includes carols, enlightenment religion and medieval theology, so please take these musings as no more than that.
And, Merry Christmas.