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Carols We Still Sing Today Tied to the 14th Century

Captain’s Log on English Man-O-War ship: Christmas Day Prayers Followed by “Much Civill Myrth”

Dickens Carolers were a hit at Sierra Madre's Dickens Village celebration this year.  The street fair traditionally opens the holiday season in the community.

Dickens Carolers were a hit at Sierra Madre's Dickens Village celebration this year. The street fair traditionally opens the holiday season in the community.

“Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntates.” This is the Christmas season’s most beloved statement: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, good will toward men”. As a carol to honor Christ’s birth, this Latin phrase set to music may have been sung as early as 129 AD. But scholars substantiated the proclamation in the works of Telesphorus, who served as Bishop of Rome in the 11th century.
Carols purpose is to celebrate each of the seasons. The best known and widely sung today are the carols of winter which focus on the Christmas story. While these songs have gone through changes in melody and wording over time, they apparently remain quite close to their original tunes and sentiments. As folklore, carols have been handed down generation upon generation: musically to share the love, devotion and to characterize the innocent nature and simplicity of the pastoral story about the Bethlehem birth. While carols have entered deeply into serious church litany, over time the carols we sing at this season are a combination of religiosity and secularism.
The carols we sing today started in the 14th century. One of the best known still existing is “Good Christian Men Rejoice”. By the 16th century the Lutheran movement inspired carols based on folk music, thereby moving the music away from church dominated celebration to a more participatory celebration that we see today. Notwithstanding the serious religious purpose of the season, the bucolic music and new-found words were lively and not as purely religious as had been previously sung. For instance, here are the words of a Renaissance carol more interested in the social aspects of seasonal celebration:
“Come Robin, Ralph and little Harry,
And merry Thomas to our greening,
Where we shall meet with Bridget and Sary,
And the finest girls that e’er were seen,
Then hey for Christmas once a year,
When we have cakes, with ale and beer,
For at Christmas every day
Young men and maids may dance away.”
Another 14th century carol we sing today is The Wassail Carol. The melody has remained fairly intact. The words changed over time while keeping the tradition of spiced hot cider with a tad of rum. In 1835, the words were transcribed as:
“Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl is made of the maple tree
So, here my good fellow, I’ll drink to thee.”
In 1675 aboard an English Man-O-War ship, according to one Captain’s log, the celebration of Christmas began at 4:00 a.m. with trumpets blaring at the captain’s cabin. Prayers were held at 10:00 a.m. followed by a dinner of rib of beef, plum pudding, good wines. The day ended with “much civill myrth”, according to records.
By the 19th century, songs tied to the century-old tradition of strictly religious meaning drifted away to be replaced with the carols that enliven our holidays today, although many of our best-known songs—with the story of the Nativity—still exist.
Silent Night was composed in 1818 for a Christmas Eve service in Obendorf, Austria. The simple but effective words were written by Joseph Mohr, an assistant Priest at the church. O Come, All Ye Faithful is a mid 18th century carol, and so is “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” by Charles Wesley. Wesley’s text written in 1739 carried the words, “Hark, How All the Welkins Ring”. (Welkin means sky, or heaven.) Away in a Manger was thought at one time to have been written by Martin Luther; today, scholars believe it is an American carol from an old folk tune that first appeared as a Christmas song around 1887. Words for The First Nowell are thought to have been inspired by Englishman Geoffery Chaucer. Chaucer wrote, “the colde frosty sesan of Decembre, “Nowell”, cryeth every lusty man”. Nowell’ is from old French word “Noel” and further derived from the Latin word nataus, or nativity.
The 20th century brought us the songs even the musically-challenged love to sing during the holidays: songs like “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Silver Bells”.
Although “White Christmas”, by Irving Berlin, remains a constant favorite today, the 12th most often heard Christmas song is “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”. This 1943 song was written by Walter Kent with lyrics by Kim Gannon. Ownership of the song rested finally with Gannon who, in his will, specified that 1/3 of the royalties from his songs go to his college, St. Lawrence University, New York. The college expects to receive $34,000 in royalties this year.
Christmas carols remind us of the meaning of the holiday, but following prayers, as on the English Man-o-War ship log reveals, may you enjoy much “civill myrth”. Merry Christmas.

By Bill Peters

December 17, 2009

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ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “Carols We Still Sing Today Tied to the 14th Century”

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