Friday, 7 December 2012

Nativity Carols Mediaeval and Modern

Nativity Carols

Some mediaeval carols written in the 15th century query how a humble girl would react if an angel appeared. Such nativity carols would have helped ordinary people to understand that, like them, Mary had been a real person.

However the Magi were far removed from the experience of common folk. The three kings, frequently called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, who had travelled far from home, perhaps as far away as India, bringing exotic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, must have seemed extraordinary.

I enjoy the popular carol We Three Kings Orient Are, written in 1857 by Reverend John Henry Hopkins, the first verse of which is:

"We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star."

I have no doubt that mediaeval men, women and children of high and low degree enjoyed carols which celebrate the Adoration of the infant Jesus by the Magi, the first verse of one of which was:

"A sterre shone bright on Twelfte Day,
Ouer that place where Jhesus lay.

On Twelfte Day this sterre so clere,
Brought kinges in oute of the eest,

Vnto that King that hath no pere,
In Bethleem Jude where he did rest,
This steere that day tho went away,
From that swete place where Jesus lay.
In an age when most people were illiterate such a carol was both enjoyable and instructive."

I’ve just shared this article with my six year-old granddaughter, who is starring in her school play ‘Little Angel Gets Her Wings’. She has shared the part in the play about the three kings, and sung a carol about them. So, today, children ike my granddaughter share the same joy and wonder as children in times past.

Carols, Vegetarian, Boar's Head

Carols and The Boar’s Head

I am a vegetarian, so some aspects of historical research make me squeamish, but not so squeamish that I do not delve into the past.

Swine were sacred to the Vikings who sacrificed a boar to their god Frey. Decorated with garlands, an apple in its mouth, the boar’s head was served by the Norseman.

The Britons and Anglo Saxons sacrificed animals, usually oxen, so in spite of the pagan origins it was not long before the tradition of serving a boar’s head became a custom at Christmas.

At Queen’s College Oxford, a boar’s head was served on the last Saturday before Christmas accompanied by a secular carol, which began:

“The boar’s head in hand bear I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary;
And I pray you my masters be merry;

Today, a turkey is as important a part of the Christmas meal as the boar’s head was to pagans and mediaeval Christians. However, as a vegetarian, my sympathy is with the slaughtered boars and turkeys. Perhaps I should find time to write a carol in praise of a vegetarian feast.