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Catholic Activity: Christmas Music: Caroling, Folk Dancing and Yodeling



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Some great suggestions on incorporating music into Christmas...some ideas not in the usual Christmas carol agenda.


Community reading, caroling and folk-dancing are traditionally appropriate. We suggest that many ideas for the celebration of the holiday season may be found in The Christmas Book.

It is interesting to learn how Christmas was celebrated in the Middle Ages, to read about the nativity plays, including even a sample of an Epiphany play as presented by the Huron and Algonquin Indians, and to glean information about all the flowers and decorations used everywhere at Christmastide — the holly, mistletoe, ivy, laurel, rosemary, bay, cherry and poinsettia. Many stories can be read to the children and a play may be enacted after the Christmas dinner.

In the event that Mother has received a poinsettia plant, the children could enact the legend telling why the Mexican people call this the "flower of the Holy Night." Father Weiser recounts it thus:

On a Christmas eve long ago a poor little boy went to church in great sadness because he had no gift to bring to the Holy Child. He dared not enter the church and, kneeling humbly on the ground outside the house of God, he prayed fervently, and assured Our Lord with tears how much he desired to offer Him some lovely present. "But I am very poor and dread to approach You with empty hands." When he finally rose from his knees he saw springing up at his feet a green plant with gorgeous blooms of dazzling red. His prayer had been answered; he broke some of the beautiful twigs from the plant and joyously entered the church to lay his gift at the foot of the Christ Child. Since then the plant has spread over the whole country; it blooms every year at Christmas time with such glorious abandon that men are filled with the true holiday spirit at the mere sight of the Christmas flower, symbolic of the Saviour's birth.

Children and adults both enjoy caroling, either at home or going from house to house. Besides the customary American and English carols, we should suggest a few of the following ones. The hymn for Christmas Lauds, O Solis Ortus, has been well-arranged for vernacular singing in Hymns of the Church. Two Latin hymns have a catchy melody which children love: Puer natus in Bethlehem, and Resonet in laudibus, an excellent fourteenth-century carol which may be found in the St. Gregory Hymnal. The latter melody is so popular and modern that some young people are reminded by it of the advertisement for Super Suds.

The Trapp Family Book of Christmas Songs is replete with songs and ideas. From it we recommend the following songs for Christmas Day: A Child Is Born in Bethlehem, We Whom Joyous Shepherd Praised (a moving fourteenth-century Latin carol), Maria on the Mountain (a lullaby carol traditional in Germany), The Darkness is Falling (an Austrian carol which could serve as a Christmas night prayer for the children); and Fum, Fum, Fum (full of the rhythm of Christmas in Spain).

The word carol comes from the Greek word choraulein, which is constructed from the two words choros, the dance, and aulein, to play the flute. The ancient Greeks and Romans danced in ring form. Their carols were brought in Roman times to Britain and Gaul. Even in medieval England a carol meant a ring-dance accompanied by singing: the children's game of ring-around-a-rosy very likely comes from the Middle Ages. Sweden and Austria still maintain the dance-carol. Gradually the meaning of the word carol came to be applied to the song itself rather than the dance. A carol usually pertains to folklore and is joyful and festive. However, in our day we apply the word carol to all Christmas songs, including many which are more solemn and should more appropriately be called hymns. The birthplace of the true Christmas carol was Italy. Besides the gift of the Christmas crib to the world, modern caroling may be ascribed to St. Francis of Assisi. From Italy the carol extended to Spain, France, and finally to all Europe. The earliest modern English carol was a lullaby-carol.

The old forms of the dance-carol persisted even in church itself, relates Father Weiser.

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 Cathedral of York, England, until the end of the sixteenth century choir boys performed a dance in the aisle of the church after morning prayer 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).

It is for these reasons that we greatly favor caroling and folk-dancing for the children during Christmastide. In the bibliography may be found several books on folk-dancing which will be very useful even to the amateur. Parents should wisely familiarize their children with simple folk dances and melodies before they become too spoiled by our modern tunes and dances, the greater portion of which do not compare in interest and culture with the earlier carols and dances. It must be remembered that folk-dancing and caroling really belong to the people, and in consequence they are essentially attractive to children and adults alike. They are, in addition to being of the people, usually based upon the folk celebration of the liturgical feast itself.

A final remark concerning caroling at Christmas is to encourage the reader to plumb the mysteries of yodeling. We are not all Swiss and Austrian and yodeling is not particularly easy. Yet it is a very popular form of music in mountainous countries, and one beloved by the people. Should you desire to try a little yodeling with the children, we recommend the Austrian yodel-carol from the Tyrol, To Christ Our Lord We Raise This Song.15 The children will like it as if by instinct.

For those families who are more sophisticated in taste, or whose talents are not developed for self-expression, Christmas night often brings dull moments and a nostalgic loneliness. Very beautiful and inspiring substitutes for Christmas cheer may be found in concerts and recordings. It is desirable at this season to take the older children to a performance of Handel's Messiah or to listen to the Christmas compositions of Corelli and Vivaldi, for example. Children indeed should at an early age be introduced to refinement in music. Folk singing and dancing serve as foundation blocks to modern musical compositions. The movements of concertos, partitas, sonatas and various other musical forms are essentially dance forms whose origin is to be found in mediaeval folklore. Parents and teachers in our country may balance the self-expression of children in using their own talents with a graduated development of interest and understanding of more developed musical compositions. In music as in all the arts the classic is that which is the common heritage of all peoples, imitations and the exaggeration of rugged individualists soon pass away.

From lands that see the sun arise
To earth's remotest boundaries,
The Virgin-born today we sing
The Son of Mary, Christ the King.

— Lauds for the Nativity

Activity Source: True Christmas Spirit by Rev. Edward J. Sutfin, Grail Publications, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1955