Recite a Christmas Carol
Radio stations across the nation have been playing Christmas music nonstop since Thanksgiving. Now, six days into December, you might already have reached the end of your tolerance for “Santa Baby” and “Baby, It’s Cold Aside.” By next week, even renditions of “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night” might leave you secretly wishing for December 26 to arrive.
Pause a minute. Turn off the radio. Pull up the words of your favorite Christmas carol and read them silently.
Now let’s take a trip back in time.
The Medieval church told the Christmas story through chants and choruses written in Latin that only the priests and a few elites could understand. Then, in the 12th century, something changed.
“Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) recognized the differences between the Christmas of the church and the festive celebrations of the common people. He wanted to stress the significance of Christmas in a way that would be truly meaningful to the people, so he created the living Nativity scene. Now everyone could easily see and identify with the events of Jesus’ birth. New carols, which combined the religious message with traditional popular tunes, were written to go along with the Nativity scene and plays.” (1)
There’s another important piece of this puzzle. Saint Francis did not simply promote popular songs that were sung in English or French or Italian instead of Latin. He wanted to make Christmas not just accessible, but meaningful. Repetition can dull our senses to the meaning behind hymns and Christmas carols. But if we are deliberate to seek songs that present the truth of the Gospel, and if we take the time to talk about the story they tell, repetition can reinforce lessons we all need to hear.
In his writings, Saint Francis admonishes his followers to sing or recite this psalm hourly “At Vespers on the Nativity of the Lord.” His instructions say, “This Psalm is said from Christmas to the octave of the Epiphany at all the Hours.” Sounds a little like a Christmas radio station, doesn’t it? The difference is in the message.
Let us magnify God our helper, let us sing to the true and living LORD God with shouts of gladness.
For He is a very great and terrible LORD, the supreme King of all the universe.
For our most holy, heavenly Father, our King from all eternity, hath sent from on high His only Son, who is born of the most blessed and holy Virgin Mary.
‘He will say to me: Thou art my Father, and I will proclaim Him as My first-begotten Son, above the kings of the earth.’
On this day the LORD God hath sent His mercy, and the night shall resound with His praises.
This is the day that the LORD hath made: let us rejoice and be glad in it.
For a dear and very holy child has been given to us, He is born for us, on our road, He was placed in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.
Glory from the highest heaven to the LORD God, and on earth peace to men of good will.
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let the sea make a noise with all that is in it, let the fields be joyful with the fullness thereof.
Sing ye to the LORD a new canticle: let all the earth praise Him.
For the LORD is great, and exceedingly to be praised: He is more terrible than all gods.
Bring to the LORD, O ye kindreds of the Gentiles, bring to the LORD glory and honour: bring to the LORD glory unto His name.
Prepare your bodies and bear His holy Cross and follow to the end His most holy precepts. (2)
As the Franciscans recited this psalm at all the hours, the words reminded them of Truth. It can do the same for us: this God was born for us and walked our road, and at the same time He is a very great and terrible LORD, the supreme King of all the universe. We rejoice in this day, this season, not although but because we know it leads to the Cross. So let us sing to the true and living LORD God with shouts of gladness!
(1) Montgomery and Renfrow, Stories of the Great Christmas Carols. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music Publishing, 2003.
(2) “Office of the Lord’s Passion.” The Writings of St. Francis. Trans. Constance, Countess de la Warr. London: Burnes & Oates, 1907. pp. 102-103.
See also The Long, Strange History of Christmas Carols: Why do we keep singing them? by Nathan Heller of Slate Magazine.