Christmas carols

Sometimes it is the absence that makes the obvious visible. On 4 December 2023, the music stopped at some German Christmas markets, including Erfurt. The reason for this was the protest against the high licence fees for the public – and undoubtedly sales-promoting – playing of music recordings by composers and performers who had not long since died. Christmas and songs, indeed celebrating Christmas and singing, seem to belong together.  From “Silent Night” to “Dreaming of a White Christmas” and even more recent songs: it’s hard to imagine Christmas without them. And vice versa: without the festival, all these songs would lose their meaning.  This is true today, but it is also true when you look back in history. It is doubly worthwhile looking back, because there are two surprises: Christmas carols are even older than Christmas itself. And: they are crucial to who celebrated the festival and where it was celebrated. After all, not all carols are the same. You have to take a closer look.

Every year again

Let’s start in the recent past, in the nineteenth century, which still characterises many ideas about Christmas. This can easily be understood by listening to the song by Wilhelm Hey (1789-1854), which is widespread in the German-speaking world and was set to music by Friedrich Silcher:

1. Every year again

the Christ child comes,

comes down to earth,

where we humans are.

2. Enters with his blessing

into every home,

walks with us on all paths,

in all our ways.

3. Is also at my side

silently and unrecognised,

that it may guide me faithfully

by its loving hand.

4. From heaven afar,

where the little angels are,

God looks so gladly

down to every child.

The content of the text is conceivably simple, briefly summarising the Christian Christmas message of the Son of God becoming human before relating it to each individual. In the third stanza, an “I” emerges from the “we” at the end of the first stanza, which exemplifies the individual experience as an invisible companion. However, in the following the “hand”, which can be experienced through touch, is formulated as a guideline for how one should personally experience the process. Only in the fourth stanza is this trivialised and infantilised: the gaze is directed from the earth to the sky populated by “little angels” – and back again. Before that, the song was merely about the physically omnipresent symbol of the Christ Child (in the manger). Otherwise, the song remained so vague with its talk of “blessings”, “paths” and “unrecognised” that it could remain unobjectionable even in non-Christian or, to the contrary, theologically reflective circles. It is only in the fourth stanza that the bourgeois family religiosity of the nineteenth century emerges so clearly that this stanza is often missing in today’s performances and reprints. The effectiveness and limitations of songs are exemplified here. And in awareness of these limits, the focus should initially be on the effect.

Cathedrale Saint-Pierre de Rennes, details (image jörg Rüpke)

The Christmas story: a song cycle

As far as Christmas is concerned, it was the author of the Gospel of Luke who first recognised the potential of songs. The Christmas story in the first two chapters of this version of the biography of Jesus is the narrative with the highest “song density” in the entire New Testament, comparable only to the songs of the Exodus from Egypt and the victory over Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus in the Tenach, the Hebrew Bible.

In just two chapters of Luke’s Christmas story, there are several poetic inserts, probably texts that have already been sung before: the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise “My soul magnifies the greatness of the Lord” (1:46-55); Zechariah’s prophetic praise, that is, at least to be presented in chant, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel” (1:68-79); the praise of the angels before the shepherds “Glorified is God in the highest” (2:14); and the praise of the priest Simeon “Now, Lord, you let your servant depart in peace, as you have said … ” (2,29-32). The greeting of the angel Gabriel to Mary, “You will conceive a child, you will bear a son …” (1:31-33 or 30-33), must probably be added to this.

A look at the history of Christian song quickly shows how powerful this hybrid text, which combines prose and poetry, has been. The songs presented here quickly formed the backbone of the liturgy of the hours for full-time religionists, monks and nuns, especially in the Latin-speaking West of the Mediterranean and Western Europe. The songs established in this way form the subject of countless artistically sophisticated musical settings. They were not, and never became, popular songs, “folk songs”. Like the other Gospels, indeed most of the texts that made it into the Christian “New Testament”, the Gospel of Luke, his birth story and its songs were not written for the broad public. This is where they differ from Hey’s text. The Magnificat (“she makes great”) illustrates this:

My soul doth magnify the Lord,

And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:

for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath done to me great things;

and holy is his name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

He hath shewed strength with his arm;

he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seats,

and exalted them of low degree.

He hath filled the hungry with good things;

and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;

As he spake to our fathers,

to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.

This is a Christmas message that is much more complex than Hey’s. This text can also be appropriated by singing, taking on the role of “I” or “mine” (and also experiencing the inclusive use of the word “maid” as a man). But the statements are much more precise and cuttingly partisan. This is memorable, if at all, because it is unusually radical, not because it is so catchy.

Cathedrale Saint-Pierre de Rennes, details (image jörg Rüpke)

Christmas for urban professionals

Such songs are the product of professional singers and theologians. Especially in the socially critical intensification of the Magnificat, this is a work of urban intellectuals, i.e. precisely those for whom the author, traditionally known as Luke, wrote. After all, he always set his biography of Jesus as the Son of God at key points in “cities”, in this or that polis (regardless of how large the respective Judean or Galilean settlement actually was). For the Latin Christian song tradition, Ambrose of Milan in the late fourth century was a similar figure. However, he did not have the Tenach in mind like the editor of the Gospel of Luke. For him, it was already the New Testament that provided the text whose message was to be presented in song form, as “hymns” for the Christian worshippers in the large city of Milan.

The integration of songs into Luke’s birth story was not yet aimed at Christian “masses”. These did not even exist in the first half of the second century. Whenever worshippers of Christ were encountered, they appeared at best in small groups (and, as the Roman provincial governor Pliny the Younger wrote to his emperor Trajan, singing groups).

But the texts of Luke’s Christmas story probably did not even have these occasions in mind. Christmas was not even celebrated in his time. Even in the fourth century, the “birthday of the Lord” was not yet a really popular festival. Some celebrated it on 25 March, most did not celebrate it at all. It was only a major event in Jerusalem and Palestine, where Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena had localised the biography of Jesus with large basilicas at certain points in the first decades of the fourth century, thus creating a memorial landscape for monks and pilgrims. Female visitors included: Egeria (or Aetheria), who came from the Iberian Peninsula or Aquitania, left us an impression of the festive celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany and the “hymns” sung by the monks in her account of her pilgrimage to the “Holy Land” in the 380s; an account that is known to us from a copy made by Benedictine monks in Monte Cassino. 

The feast was like its songs. Complicated. Despite all its strong pictorial motifs, including the three wise men gradually ascending to kings and the pair of ox and donkey not yet present in the New Testament. But not even these managed to come together on the same day in the livery stable inside Bethlehem. Even back then, there was a turn of the year between 25 December, the birthday of the true Sun, Christ, and 6 January, the day of the “Apparition of the Lord (on earth)” (and in many places also the baptism of Christ).

Cathedrale Saint-Pierre de Rennes, details (image jörg Rüpke)

How does a festival become popular?

How do religious practices spread? Presumably, stories are at the forefront. Narratives not only make it possible to pass on information (whether true or not), but also to emphasise and vary, to magnify and diminish. Above all, they structure the complicated historical reality with all its factors in the simple form of the human (and super-human) actions of a few people. When done well, they are memorable and offer opportunities for identification. At the same time, they leave enough room for the reader or listener (as we must assume for the majority of recipients in pre-modern cultures) to adopt very different attitudes to the events and people narrated. In this way, (almost) nobody is forced to not want to be one of the addressees. Narratives can be organised around events, creation, migrations, wars or passion stories (if we want to stay in the Christian narrative space). In the Roman imperial period, the biographical representation of history gained in popularity; this is precisely what the Christian Gospels, Acts of the Apostles and, increasingly, the stories of martyrs and saints were responding to.

As stories were not primarily read, but had to be recounted and retold, the necessary memory aids could be texts as well as sufficiently detailed images. And even songs. But different from the Lucan or Jerusalem hymns.

The popularisation of Christmas in Western Europe is simultaneously a rise of Christmas carols. Previous considerations strongly suggest that it was the latter, the carols, that were the driving force. The oldest German Christmas carol that has been handed down in writing gives us a better understanding of this connection. The fact that carols in the vernacular were needed at all in order to reach many people with songs should be emphasised even before we take a closer look at this specific text. But what was sung on the Lower Rhine perhaps already in the eleventh century and preserved in an manuscript from 1394 in the Erfurt Biblioteca Amplomiana?

Now welcome to us, Lord Christ,

who art the Lord of us all.

Now welcome to us, dear Lord,

who art in the beautiful churches.

Kyrie eleison.

Now God is born, the consolation of us all,

who has thrown open the gates of hell with his cross.

The mother was called Mary,

as it is written in all Christian books.

Kyrie eleison.

This song also did not originate from the folk spirit, but was no longer intended for the clergy either. It was initially sung by municipal functionaries, the Aachen aldermen, but it was sung by them for the wider community. Non-theologians sang for non-theologians. The message is simple: the Lord Christ is coming and is to be welcomed accordingly. This means one thing above all: you can escape hell. And this simple message is combined with the material symbolism of the beautiful church and the cross, which stand before the eyes of those singing and those listening. That is almost everything.

All that remains is the information that the mother’s name was Mary. But that is already book knowledge, and you don’t need to acquire any more of the same knowledge contained in all “Christian books”. It is enough that they exist – and only gradually will the urban bourgeoisie, the sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie, appropriate this medium in the following centuries and use it for other purposes. Long before the Reformation, beguins as well as nuns would collect their own popular songs – including Christmas carols – and sing from them.

Christmas for everyone

The book also became an increasingly important medium for Christmas thanks to printing with movable type. After all, it served as a book for children to read aloud, as a means of reflection and escape from everyday life. Thanks to the high-speed presses and the cheap, wood and acidic paper of the nineteenth century, it even became an affordable gift that enabled the giver to precisely define the individual personality of the recipient through the gift itself. Or to define him or her as a member of a religious community. A songbook and, above all, its shared use, achieves this effect even better. And this again requires the urban intellectuals acting as songwriters. Martin Luther and the Reformation he initiated (apart from more radical reformers who fundamentally rejected all songs not taken from the Bible) joined the ranks here and also gave Christmas a new shape:

From heaven above to earth I come

To bear good news to every home;

Glad tidings of great joy I bring

Whereof I now will say and sing:

To you this night is born a child

Of Mary, chosen mother mild;

This little child, of lowly birth,

Shall be the joy of all your earth.

‘Tis Christ our God who far on high

Hath heard your sad and bitter cry;

Himself will your Salvation be,

Himself from sin will make you free.

He brings those blessings, long ago

Prepared by God for all below;

Henceforth His kingdom open stands

To you, as to the angel bands.

These are the tokens ye shall mark,

The swaddling clothes and manger dark;

There shall ye find the young child laid,

By whom the heavens and earth were made.

Now let us all with gladsome cheer

Follow the shepherds, and draw near

To see this wondrous gift of God

Who hath His only Son bestowed.

Give heed, my heart, lift up thine eyes!

Who is it in yon manger lies?

Who is this child so young and fair?

The blessed Christ-child lieth there.

My heart for very joy doth leap,

My lips no more can silence keep;

I too must sing with joyful tongue

That sweetest ancient cradle-song.

Glory to God in highest heaven,

Who unto man His Son hath given!

While angels sing with pious mirth

A glad New Year to all the earth

(trsl. Catherine Winkworth, Lyra Germanica, London 1855, 12-14)

I quote here only the first seven and last two of a total of fifteen verses from the reformer’s hymn, which was first printed in a Wittenberg hymnal in 1535. A hymn of this length requires writing; division of labour through the memorisation of individual stanzas by a number of children is not really a suitable means; yet the legend of its origin is revealing as a way of problematising the length itself.

The reformed country requires new songs, but the narrative, the “fairy tale” is only new to a limited extent, namely in its focus on God’s forgiveness of sins. This is the decisive and now resolved need. The rest of the narrative is extremely simple: child and virgin mother, plus another reference to what everyone can see and which anchors the song in the physical present: the materiality of the manger and the nappies – Jesus’ nappies, which can also be found in contemporary collections of relics. However, the decisive clue for our Christmas story and the Christmas story can be found at the end. Christmas means singing carols. Or more precisely: only those who have suitable songs to sing can also celebrate the festival.




Cite this blog post
Jörg Rüpke (2024, January 2). Christmas carols. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vese

Jörg Rüpke

Jörg Rüpke is Fellow in Religious Studies and Vice-director of the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt, Germany. His research interest focus on ritual, religion and urbanity. Recent publications include: Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion (Princeton, 2018); Urban Religion: A Historical Approach to Urban Growth and Religious Change (Berlin, 2020); Religion and its History: A Critical Inquiry (London, 2021); Ritual als Resonanzerfahrung (Stuttgart, 2021).

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