Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Exploring the roots of Christmas carolling
London Contemporary Voices carolling at Westfields, London
HYMNS – the word is from the Greek humnos meaning an ode or song of praise – are found in the New Testament, for example Philippians 2:5-11 which in your Bible you will see is typeset as a quotation. Those first readers probably chanted or recited verse – we don’t know if they sung it.
Associating the word ‘hymn’ with singing probably dates from 129 AD when Telesphorus, Bishop of Rome, called for a song called Angels’ Hymn to be included as part of the Sunday celebration. From then on, singing became part of the church gatherings, which were already becoming more formalised.
However, as time went on, church singing meant a solemn plainsong sung in Latin by a priest or priests while the people listened. Latin was used for written texts and, as spoken language changed and evolved, Latin became increasingly unfamiliar to people in the congregations.
Releasing the hymn
Enter our friend Francis of Assisi again, and his burden to make the Bible, and Jesus as the central character in the New Testament, understandable and accessible for ordinary people. At the same time that he started using a live nativity scene to portray the Christmas story, in December 1223, he wanted people to be able to express their joy at Christmas by singing simple songs themselves,in the cave where he had set up his nativity scene or wherever they happened to be, not just in church. His thought was that as a great company of the heavenly host appeared, with an angel who announced the birth of Jesus Christ, praising God and saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favour rests”, so people should be able to sing joyful praise songs, that would help them to focus on the miraculous meaning of the holiday – God visiting Earth in the flesh to save people from their sins, with the desire to reconcile them to Him.
He began setting religious lyrics to popular tunes of the time, but his ‘halfway house’ was an actual carol that was entitled Psalmus in Navititate. This was actually written in Latin so it could be sung during the Mass, but the music was more in the style of popular pagan tunes. And 300 years later, we find the Protestant reformer Martin Luther doing exactly the same thing, althouygh he translated Latin hymns and set them to popular tunes. Fast forward another 250 years, and Charles Wesley is writing lyrics that explain basic Biblical doctrines simply, setting them to popular, singable and memorable tunes. Some of these are still in our repertoire along with Martin Smith and Chris Tomlin and HTB’s Tim Hughes and other contemporary songwriters.
We forget that Francis, who never became a priest – he was ordained deacon, somewhat reluctantly, on the Pope’s orders – had the idea that became the tradition. It became so popular that many others began writing carols and ‘carolling’ or singing carols in the streets became part of the culture, spreading from Italy across Europe – and the world.
- Today we use the term ‘worship arts’ to convey creativity that is broader than just music. How can we use contemporary art forms to be more creative in telling the best story ever told?
- Francis was very concerned about finding ways to include the ‘ordinary people’ of his time to whom the language and rituals of church were a barrier. If he was advising us now, what barriers would he point to, and how could we better reach our 21st century version of ‘ordinary people’?