By tradition, St. Francis of Assisi staged the first live nativity scene in Italy in AD 1223. He wanted his parishioners to witness the humility, poverty, and simplicity that the Christ Child knew on earth–not just the solemnity of the masses at the parish church in nearby Greccio.
He placed a crib in a manger and padded it with straw. He borrowed an ox and an ass, and found villagers to play Mary and Joseph. Shepherds stood watch over nearby flocks, and his parishioners were the angels, singing the first Christmas carols.
Fellow friar St. Bonaventure wrote, “The forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.”
The crèche and the carol, both popular tellings of the Christmas story, have spread across ages and continents. Each tells the story in its own way. The Holy Family might be re-cast in native woods and fabrics. Each culture crafts carols of its idiomatic modes, scales, and poetry. Each new telling is carefully preserved, to be brought out each year and polished like a cherished family heirloom.
The word carol comes from the Greek choros, a buoyant, carefree ring dance in the spirit of Mother Goose’s “Ring Around the Rosy.” A lively song accompanied the dance, and many early Christmas carols were sung to popular dance tunes. The contrast with hymns is complete: Hymns were sung in Latin, and the words took precedence. Carols were sung in the vernacular, and the tune was the thing. Hymns called for solemn propriety, while carols were festive, the product of a joyful spirit declaring a “spontaneous and undoubting faith,” according to the influential British collector of carols, Percy Dearmer.
“Carols, moreover,” wrote Dearmer, “were always modern, expressing the manner in which ordinary man at his best understood the ideas of his age. The charm of an old carol lies precisely in its having been true to the period in which it was written, and those which are alive today retain their vitality because of this sincerity.”
Today we mix carols with our hymns at church and our pop tunes on the radio. Then we pack them away like the ornaments for our tree and the crèche for our mantelpiece. When the Christmas season returns (along with the perennial debate over how soon is too soon), we unpack them and polish them again, and rejoice as each carol praises the miracle of the Christ Child in its own way.
Let the carols of Christmas set the tone for all your holiday traditions! Join us on November 30 and December 1, 7:30 p.m. both nights, at Timberline Middle School in Alpine.
Tickets are on sale now at thetso.org/tickets.
I look forward to seeing you at the symphony!
TSO Marketing Director