Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Break (and a Few Old Carols You've Never Heard Before)

Since this week is Christmas, I'm taking a break from blogging. Normal posts will resume next Monday, Dec. 31. In the meantime, here are some old Christmas carols that I found, and which are in desperate need of a comeback. They probably wouldn't fit in a church service, but perhaps on a Christmas comedy album of some kind.

First up is an old English classic going back centuries, "The Cherry Tree Carol." It narrates an event that takes place just after Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, but before the angel visits him to explain the nature of the conception. It gives you a rather unconventional perspective on the holy family--see Joseph's "answer most unkind" in the verses below:

Joseph and Mary walked through an orchard green,
Where was berries and cherries as thick as might be seen.
O then bespoke Mary, with words so meek and mild,
"Pluck me one cherry, Joseph, for I am with child."
O then bespoke Joseph, with answer most unkind,
"Let him pluck thee a cherry that brought thee now with child." 
O then bespoke the baby within his mother's womb:
"Bow down then the tallest tree for my mother to have some."
Then bowed down the highest tree unto his mother's hand.
Then she cried, "See, Joseph, I have cherries at command!"
O then bespoke Joseph: "I have done Mary wrong;
But now cheer up, my dearest, and do not be cast down.
O eat your cherries, Mary, O eat your cherries now,
O eat your cherries, Mary, that grow upon the bough."
Then Mary plucked a cherry, as red as any blood;
Then Mary, she went homewards all with her heavy load.

Another old carol, this one from Ireland, makes the unusual choice of asking the angels to shut up and the star to stop shining (but as you'll see, it's for a very good reason):

Oh! cease, ye blessed angels, such clamorous joys to make!
Though midnight silence favors, the shepherds are awake;
 And you, O glorious star! that with new splendor brings
From the remotest parts three learned eastern kings,
Turn somewhere else your luster, your rays elsewhere display;
For Herod he may slay the babe, and Christ must straight away. 

This interesting angle might just be due to the temperament of the hymn-writer, though, which appears to be rather dour. Another verse suggests that maybe we ought to be mourning rather than rejoicing, because Jesus had to be born in such unfitting circumstances:

But why should we rejoice? Should we not rather mourn
To see the hope of nations thus in a stable born?
Where are his crown and scepter, where is his throne sublime,
Where is his train majestic that should the stars outshine?
Is there no sumptuous palace nor any inn at all
To lodge his heavenly mother but in a filthy stall?

Here's a carol ("The Holy Well") that reflects on Jesus' boyhood, narrating an episode in which the young Savior is goes out to play with the neighborhood kids. But they bully and taunt him because he was "born in an ox's stall." He returns to Mary with tears "trickling from his eyes like waters from the rock" and explains what happened. Mary then responds with a rather alarming suggestion. We pick up the story as Jesus returns from being bullied:

Sweet Jesus turned him round about,
To his mother's dear home went he,
And said, "I have been in yonder town,
As far as you may see:
I have been down in yonder town,
As far as the Holy Well,
There did I meet with as fine children
As any tongue can tell.
I said, "God bless you every one,
And your bodies Christ save and see!
And now, little children, I'll play with you,
And you shall play with me."
But they made answer to me, 'No,'
They were lords' and ladies' sons,
And I the poorest of them all,
Born in an ox's stall." 
[Mary:] "Though you are but a maiden's child,
Born in an ox's stall,
Thou art the Christ, the King of heaven,
And the Savior of them all!
Sweet Jesus, go down to yonder town,
As far as the Holy Well,
And take away those sinful souls,
And dip them deep in hell!"

Thankfully, the carol doesn't leave the story at that rather startling act of Marian judgment. It goes on to record Christ's response, along with a cameo by the archangel Gabriel:

"Nay, nay," sweet Jesus smiled and said,
"Nay, nay, that may not be,
For there are too many sinful souls
Crying out for the help of me."
Then up spoke the angel Gabriel,
Upon a good set steven,
"Although you are but a maiden's child,
You are the King of heaven!" 

Finally, here's another old hymn which is generally conventional and altogether lovely, except that the meaning of one of the words it uses has changed since it was written. This is from verse 3 of "A Child This Day":

Then was there with the angel
An host incontinent
Of heavenly bright soldiers
Which from the Highest was sent.

It makes you wonder why we ever stopped singing these, doesn't it? Here's wishing you a merry (and continent) Christmas!