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Catholic Activity: Christmas Carols for Every Mood



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Christmas carols may be divided into many groups and appealing classifications, such as nativity carols, prayer carols, mystery carols, and so on. To list all of them would fill a volume, but here are a few excellent examples for various moods.


Nativity Carols — This, the largest group, is made up of Christmas carols in the strict sense of the word, the main theme being the story of the Nativity itself. They reveal the religious feeling which the birth of Christ brings to the hearts of men and usually express adoration, praise, love, gratitude, contrition, wonder, joy, and similar emotions, like this ancient English carol:

A child is born in Bethlehem; Rejoice, therefore, Jerusalem. Low in the manger lieth He, Whose kingdom without end shall be. . . . All glory, Lord, to Thee be done, Now seen in flesh, the Virgin's Son.

A solemn note announcing the wondrous news is sounded in the simple hymn "God Eternal" (Boh Predvichniy), a traditional carol of the Ukrainian people:

God Eternal was born. From heaven He came; All His people to save Was He kindly pleased.

In Bethlehem was He born, Our Christ and our Lord, And Master of us all: For us was He born.

In contrast is one of the old Spanish (Catalan) carols expressing the joy of Christmas in a festive manner (the word foom is an imitation of the humming sound of guitars and mandolins):

Many feasts the good Lord gave us, Sing: foom, foom, foom. Summer feasts are better, though; But let us praise Him even so: For He does our needs remember And sent us Christmas in December. Foom, foom, foom. On December twenty-fifth, Sing: foom, foom, foom. A little child was born that night, So sweet and small, at dawn of light. Dark was the stable, cold and bare, When blessed Mary bore Him there. Foom, foom, foom.

The opposite sentiment—compassion and sweet sadness—is expressed in a traditional Slovak carol:

It was a night in winter, Man and beast asleep, When Jesus, poor and humble, Did His vigil keep. The Lord whom kings and prophets Lovingly foretold, Lies trembling in a stable, Dark and bitter cold. Is this the only welcome, Saviour, at Thy birth? Is loneliness and sadness All you find on earth?

Prayer Carols — An excellent example of these Christmas songs directly addressed to the Holy Child in wonder and admiration is the Austrian children's carol, Lied der Kinder zu Bethlehem (Carol of the Children of Bethlehem):

Thou hast come, O Saviour dear, To redeem us; Thou art here: Mother told me so. Cold and freezing is the night, But Thy love is warm and bright Like the fire's glow.

Poor, O Jesus, is Thy home, Winds through all the corners roam; I would not stay here! Leave the stable and the hay, Come with me to live and play! Won't you, Jesus dear?

Another beautiful prayer carol is the poem Tu scendi dalle stelle (Thou camest from the Heavens), written by Pope Pius IX (1878) and sung to a traditional melody:

Thou camest down, O heaven's King, From starry sky, And in a cave so poor and cold I see Thee lie. I see Thee tremble, blessed God; Why should this be? Thy sacrifice, O love Divine, Is all for me.

Mystery Carols — These carols form a large group of medieval Christmas songs delightfully describing all manner of legendary events supposed to have happened to the Divine Child. One of the most charming English mystery carols is the following old song:25

As Joseph was a-walking, He heard an angel sing: This night shall be born Our heavenly king.

He neither shall be born In housen or in hall, Nor in the place of Paradise, But in an ox's stall.

He neither shall be clothed In purple nor in pall, But all in fair linen, As were babies all.

He neither shall be rock'd In silver nor in gold But in a wooden cradle That rocks on the mould.

Shepherd Carols — These songs flourished in Germany, Austria, England, France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, as well as in the Slavic nations. They relate the message of the angel, the song of the heavenly hosts, the visit of the shepherds to the manger, and often describe their prayers and gifts. Many of these carols carry refrains imitating shepherds' instruments; for instance this merry English carol of the fifteenth century:

About the field they piped full right, Even about the midst of the night; They saw come down from heaven a light: Tirlè, tirlè — so merrily The shepherds began to blow.

In another early English carol, the last shepherd in a group, after presenting a cap as his gift, speaks this humble prayer:

This gift, Son, I bring thee is but small, And though I come the hindmost of all, When Thou shall them to Thy blisse call: Good Lord, yet think on me!

Many carols invite the shepherds to hurry and adore the new-born Lord, as in this Austrian shepherds' carol:

Rise, shepherds, though the night is deep, Rise from your slumber's dreaming! Jesus, the Shepherd, watch does keep, In love all men redeeming. Hasten to Mary and look for her Child, Come, shepherds, and greet our Saviour mild!

Noels — The Noels are still another group of carols, of which we have many examples both in French and in English. The word "Noel" or "Nowell" is generally repeated as a refrain, in the sense of "news." Who does not know the familiar carol "The first Noel"? It has become a favorite Christmas song among all English-speaking people. As an example of the Noel refrain, we quote the closing lines of another ancient English carol:

Noel, noel, noel, Noel sing all we may, Because the King of all kings Was born this blessed day.

Macaronics — A macaronic is a carol written partly in Latin, partly in the vernacular. There are many of these in French, English, and German. Here is an English macaronic of the sixteenth century:

Now make us joy in this feste In quo Christus natus est, A Patre unigenitus. . . . Sing to Him and say welcum, Veni Redemptor gentium.

Lullaby Carols — These songs, as the classification suggests, make use of the lullabies of various countries, either picturing the Virgin Mary singing to the Holy Child or having the devout worshiper sing them directly to the Divine Babe, like this old Austrian carol:

Thy shining eyes, so blue and light, Thy tender cheeks, so soft and bright; I will remain forever Thine, O dearest Son, O child Divine. . . . (lullaby humming)

A quaint old carol sung by the nuns at St. Mary's Abbey, Chester, England, is a combination of an old Latin hymn (Qui creavit caelum), with a lullaby verse after each line. The earliest manuscript of this macaronic dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century:

The Lord who created the heavens, Lully lully lu; Is born in a stable, Byby byby by, The King of all mankind, Lully lully lu. Between two animals Byby byby by, Lies the Joy of the world, Lully lully lu, Sweet beyond anything, Byby byby by.26

Again there is the endearing Czech lullaby so typical of many similar songs among the Slavic nations. It is impossible to render in English the charming spirit of the original Czech text:

Hajej, nynej, Jesus dear, Sleep in peace, and do not fear. We shall bundle you to rest, Keep you close to our breast Hajej, nynej, darling Child, Son of Mary, Saviour mild.

Companion Carols — This is an extremely interesting group of songs—mostly German—wherein the singer represents himself as accompanying the shepherds, or as taking their place, addressing the Child, or Mary and Joseph, in a simple, affectionate manner. Often a broad local dialect is used, as in the old Austrian carol from the Tyrol, Jetzt hat sich halt aufgetan das himmlische Tor (The gates of heaven's glory did spring open suddenly). Here is a rollicking, joyous stanza:

So came we running to the crib, I and also you, A bee-line into Bethlehem, Hopsa, trala loo: "O, baby dear, take anything Of all the little gifts we bring: Have apples or have butter, Maybe pears or yellow cheese; Or would you rather have some nuts, Or plums, or what you please. Alleluja, alleluja; Alle-, alle-, Alleluja."

Another lively companion carol is the Weihnachtslied der Jäger (Hunters' Carol) from Austria:

Awake, O drowsy hunters, Hear the whistles and the horn! Get up from lazy slumber, For our Saviour Christ is born. From the trumpets' jolly playing Let the hills and valleys ring, Hark, the hunting hounds are baying; Go and greet the new-born King! Awake from sleep, O hunters: It is the morn of Christmas day. (Hunting horns): Tri-di-ay-ho-di-ay-ho-dio. . . .

Dance Carols — Dance carols, usually ring-dances accompanied by singing, were greatly favored in medieval times. The altar boys, for example, in the Cathedral of Seville, Spain, used to dance before the altar on Christmas and other feast days, accompanied by song and the sound of castanets. In the Minster of York, England, until the end of the sixteenth century, choir boys performed a dance in the aisle of the church after morning prayers on Christmas day. In France it was customary to dance a bergette (shepherd's dance) in churches at Christmas time. Dancing in churches was prohibited by an ecclesiastical council at Toledo in 590, but the custom had become so much a part of the Christmas festivities that in some places dancing survived until the thirteenth and fourteenth century, and, in England, right up to the Reformation (in Spain even longer).

A famous old English carol from a mystery play pictures Christ as announcing the mystical marriage to His "true love" — the Church — and narrating His acts of love to her:

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, I would my true love did so chance To see the legend of my play, To call my true love to my dance. Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love; This have I done for my true love.

In a manger laid and wrapp'd I was, So very poor, this was my chance, Betwixt an ox and a silly poor ass, To call my true love to my dance. Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love; This have I done for my true love.

Christmas dancing is still practiced in the Scandinavian countries, where carols are sung as the people perform a ring-dance around the Christmas tree. A popular dance carol is the Swedish Nu ar det Jul igen (Now it is Christmas again):

Now Christmas is here again, And Christmas is here again, And Christmas we'll have till Easter. Then Easter is here again, And Easter is here again, And Easter we'll have till Christmas. Now this will not be so, And this will not be so, For in between comes Lenten-fasting.

A traditional Austrian carol invites the shepherds and the faithful to dance before the crib:

Bring your pipes and bring your drum, Call the shepherds all to come; Hasten quick, no time to lose, Don't forget your dancing shoes. Frolic we right merrily: He will laugh with happy glee, Yes, and smile, and we will dance, While He claps His tiny hands.

Jesus dearest, Thee to greet, Hasten we with dancing feet. When the time will come to die, In Thine arms we beg to lie. All our sins forgive, we pray, Miserere Domine. Grant us then with Thee to dwell, In heaven's bliss, Emmanuel.

Epiphany Carols — These carols tell the story of the three Magi, their journey to Bethlehem, the adoration, the presents offered, and other details, including sentiments of prayer and devotion. Many of them are like ballads and of considerable length. Here is the beginning of an old English Epiphany carol:

Three kings came out of Indian land To see the wondrous Infant bent, With rich presents in their hand; Straightly a star before them went. A wondrous thing it was to see: That star was more than other three. . . .

An Epiphany song of deep devotion is the old Portuguese carol Os Reis (The Kings):

Out of the Orient they came ariding Three noble kings, of humble heart and mild; They came to see the Blessed Lord of Heaven Descend to earth, to be a little child. Precious gifts of gold and myrrh and incense, Bringing God the gifts which God had made: Low the kings in homage bowing, At the feet of Mary laid.

Cradle-Rocking — This word comes from the German Kindelwiegen (Rocking of the Child), a custom which originated in Germany and Austria in the fourteenth century. It became widespread as a substitute for the Nativity plays, after they were banned. A priest would carry to the altar a cradle with a figure of the Christ Child; there the cradle was rocked while the congregation sang and prayed. The service ended with the devotional kissing of the Christ Child at the altar rail.

During the sixteenth century this custom, too, was forbidden in churches, but it survived for a long time as a devotional practice in many convents and in private homes. In the Tyrol, girls dressed in white carried the cradle from house to house, rocking it and singing carols. In other parts of Austria, and in Bavaria, mothers would rock the cradle to obtain the favor of having children, or to implore the Divine Child for special blessings upon their families. The rocking was accompanied by songs written for this particular purpose, for instance, this German carol of the sixteenth century:

Joseph, dearest Joseph mine, Help me rock my baby fine! What Gabriel foretold Is now fulfilled, Eia, Eia, The Virgin bore a child As the Father's wisdom willed. Eia, Eia. Joseph, dearest Joseph mine, Help me rock my baby fine!

Star Carols — These songs are sung by young people who go from house to house at Epiphany, carrying a pole with the "Star of Bethlehem," and impersonating the Magi, reporting the adventures of their journey and wishing all a happy and holy Christmas. This custom, a simplified form of the ancient Epiphany plays, was widespread in England, Holland, France, Austria, and Germany from the end of the fourteenth century until the Reformation. It is still practiced in Austria, Bavaria (Sternsingen), and the Slavic countries.

We are the three Kings with our star, We bring you a story from lands afar: And so, dear people, we say to you — It might sound strange, but is really true — That something happened in the Holy Land; We went there, all three, by God's command, And in Bethlehem's stable we found a child: Our new-born Saviour, sweet and mild. . . .

Christmas Yodeling — Christmas yodeling is an old custom in the Austrian Tyrol, where it seems a natural way to honor the Divine Child. The mountaineers' song without words conveys deep feelings of devotion, love, and affection. This is, of course, the genuine yodel, not the modern hillbilly type so familiar to American radio fans. True Christmas yodeling is capable of great tenderness of voice and melody as the subtle changes from chest tones to head tones are delicately made by the yodelers.

They do this before the crib or in the open on mountain peaks during the holy season. It was performed in the churches during past centuries. Some yodels are based on old traditional tunes; others are improvised on the spur of the moment. Often the yodeling forms a background as Christmas carols are sung.

Here is an old yodel-carol from the Austrian Tyrol in which singing and yodeling alternate; the singing is done by two groups: men (representing the shepherds) and women (representing the angels):

To Christ our Lord we raise this song, (Yodel): Hol-di-ah-di-ay. Chimes are ringing, angels singing, (Yodel): Hol-di-ah-di-ay. The Cherubim and Seraphim Pour out their songs in praise of Him: (Angels): Amen.

Oh, look here! No, look there! Angels' choirs everywhere: (Yodel): Hol-di-ah-di-ay. (Angels): Alleluja.

Those fortunate enough to have experienced a Tyrolean Christmas are forever haunted by the beauty and simplicity of these voices coming out of the mountains.


25. This poem is a part of the famous Cherry Tree Carol, rendered in the version of William Hone, Ancient Mysteries, London, 1823, p. 90.

26. The Latin text and the music of this carol are reprinted in A Christmas Book, by D. B. Wyndham Lewis and G. C. Heseltine, London, 1928, p. 77; also in The Trapp Family Book of Christmas Songs, edited by Franz Wasner, New York, 1950, p. 16.

Activity Source: Christmas Book, The by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York, 1952