Speaking of his medieval ancestors and ours, d’Alembert once said that “Poetry for them was reduced to a puerile mechanism.” James Madison, echoing him, judged the result of fifteen centuries of Christian civilization to be little more than “pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” But while luminaries such as these and their latter-day followers find the singing of noëls and Christmas carols to be a mark of childlike sensibility and credulity, men and women and children of stout hearts and true faith take particular glee in the annual return of the chance to raise their voices in praise of the newborn King.
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.
Calvinist Europe and North America were not so fortunate. Calvin himself insisted that his followers’ singing be closely tied to the Psalms and, what is more, that it be plain. What resulted were tunes like the Old Hundredth, which may now bring some comfort even to Catholics thanks to its familiarity, but can hardly be accused of being spirited, light-hearted, or festive. In England, the Roundhead dictator Cromwell even tried to abolish the outward celebration of Christmas. Some have seen in The Twelve Days of Christmas a covert Catholic or even Jacobite attempt to keep Christ in the holiday. Be that as it may, there is a wondrous contrast to be contemplated between whatever muted remembrance of Christ’s birth was able to be summoned up by the staid and stolid Pilgrims in Boston, and, hundreds of miles to the west, St. Jean de Brébeuf’s candlelit Mass with the native children of Ontario singing their Huron Carol, a French tune with Indian words of praise to Jesous Ahontonia.
It was in France that, arguably, the popular custom of singing noël found its artistic culmination in the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (ca. 1650-1704), a composer who united the discipline of the post-Tridentine Catholic baroque to a subtle sense of the dramatic. These qualities are joined in one of his earlier Christmas works, In Nativitatem Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Canticum (H. 414), which was composed in the 1680s for performance in the Hôtel de Guise in Paris. Here the Latin Vulgate words of St. Luke’s infancy narrative are married to sounds alternately sweet and joyous, from the Angel’s greeting, Nolite timere pastores, to the shepherd’s raucous reply Eamus usque Bethlehem. This short musical celebration of the Savior’s birth—just a quarter hour in length—culminates in the lullaby-like love song of the shepherds to the Christ child:
Salve puerule /Salve, tenullule / O nate parvule / Quam bonus es!
Hail, little one / Hail, tender one / O new born babe / How good you are!
This oft-recorded motet is proof not only that Latin was a living language in the 17th century, but that the highest theological doctrines can be wedded to the deepest emotions with creativity and integrity.
In the 1690s, while composer for the Jesuit church of St. Louis in the fashionable Marais section of Paris, Charpentier employed singers from the Opera—not without criticism from some of the devout. With talented singers and musicians at his command, his flights of creativity were higher. A later Canticum on the birth of Christ (H. 416) shows him at his grandest. Yet he did not cut his ties with the simple traditions of his country; the instrumental versions of popular Noëls that he composed to alternate with his soaring and plaintive chorale settings of the O antiphons are as clear and uncomplicated as they could be.
Charpentier’s greatest celebration of Christmas was his Messe de Minuit de Noël (ca. 1694), a creative revival of the old tradition of the parody Mass, which was the custom of building the settings of the Mass around popular tunes. Imagine kneeling amidst the candlelit splendor of a church on Christmas eve and hearing the choir sing “Ky-ri-e e-lei-son” to the tune of Adeste Fideles. If it were done well, surely it would bring a special delight. This is the kind of experience Charpentier provided for the worshippers at the Church of St. Louis, as they heard the old favorites Joseph est bien marié, Une jeune Pucelle, and Or nous dîtes Marie as the musical foundation of their prayer for God’s mercy.
The secularism of the subsequent centuries has not stemmed the tide of creativity surrounding the season of Christ’s birth. The Oxford Movement of the early 19th century led to Frederick Oakeley’s immortal English rendition of Adeste Fideles as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and the enthusiasm for the lost innocence of the Middle Ages soon after produced the rollicking “Good King Wenceslaus.” There is something especially lovely, however, about the early noëls and carols, such as the 15th-century carol Adam Lay Ybounden, which like Beowulf miraculously survived the fires lit by Henry VIII’s henchmen in the form of a single, precious manuscript. In them, we see evidence of the simple joy of those who were unafraid to become as little children and to praise their Heavenly Father for the greatest gift of all.
And for those humbugs and scoffers of the 18th century, who would call our piety superstition and our song childish, one of Belloc’s finest is ready-made:
Noël! Noël! Noël! Noël! . . .