Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Advent Hymns and Christmas Carols
The liturgical background of our traditional hymns during Advent and carols during the Christmas season, according to Christopher O. Blum in Crisis Magazine:
It is from the medieval Church and from her very life, the liturgy, that the custom of singing songs to the Christ child descends. The earliest noëls sprang directly from such chants as the Carolingian anthem Puer natus est and the O antiphons sung before the Magnificat at vespers during the octave leading up to Christmas. The word noël itself derives from the Latin natalis and appears in the form of the salute Noé! in Christmas Masses in the 12th century, meaning approximately “Hail, newborn one.” In the 13th century, the O antiphons emerged from the monastic choirs and took to the streets in the form we still know and love as Veni, veni Emmanuel. Many of the earliest Christmas songs that survive today are similarly bound to the liturgy and its language, often taking the form of what is called macaronic verse, in which Latin lines alternate with vernacular, with Bl. Heinrich Suso’s In Dulci Jubilo and the anonymous Célébrons la Naissance Nostri Salvatoris being particularly fine examples of the type.
It was the holy audacity of Saint Francis of Assisi that made the occasional pious work of creative clerics into one of the most popular manifestations of Christian piety, the carol and caroling. In 1223, Francis transformed the tiny village church at Greccio into the first living manger scene, complete with ox and ass and straw. Francis was granted a vision of the Christ child that night while the Little Brothers stood around singing their songs of praise. The grace of that midnight Mass multiplied like the loaves and fishes as the friars traveled throughout Europe carrying with them their new songs and their custom of reenacting the shepherds’ joyous march to the crèche. From these processions comes the word carol, which appears in the 13th century and comes from the old French name of a type of dance.
Towards the end of the medieval period, the invention of the printing press led to the preservation of many early carols and noëls. Back when England was still Merry, the publisher Winken de Woorde produced an edition of English carols (1520), and French, Spanish, and German publishers were not slow to follow suit. Thanks to Martin Luther’s own love of singing, the custom of celebrating Christmas with song survived in Lutheran Germany and Scandinavia, and even enjoyed a new flourishing with such hymns as Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen by Michael Praetorius (flourished ca. 1600) and the immortal Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Read the rest here.