As we have begun our Christmas season, I am taking time to look at some of the traditions and decor of the season we have come to just take for granted. Today, let's explore how it is we came to enjoy the act of caroling during this season. The practice links back to a Catholic Franciscan monk known as Francis of Assisi. Sometime in the 13th century, this Franciscan monk was burdened with the long held tradition of the priests singing these lofty songs which the common folk could not really understand, relate to, or participate with. In his mind, the songs should be simpler, more down to earth, and touch the people at a level they could relate to in their everyday lives. They weren't just to be limited to the great cathedrals and church buildings, but to the streets, byways, and even the homes of those who celebrate the birth of Jesus. His impression of the first Christmas, that of Jesus' birth on this earth, was one of celebration and great joy. Solemn "church songs" were not expressive of this same joy, nor celebration of the greatness of the season. His hope in bringing the people into the "songs of the season" was that they would come to celebrate the joy of Jesus having come to earth, becoming our means whereby we could enter into eternal relationship with God and enjoy the blessings of the season over and over again.
That night in the fields near Bethlehem some shepherds were guarding their sheep. All at once an angel came down to them from the Lord, and the brightness of the Lord’s glory flashed around them. The shepherds were frightened. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid! I have good news for you, which will make everyone happy. This very day in King David’s hometown a Savior was born for you. He is Christ the Lord. You will know who he is, because you will find him dressed in baby clothes and lying on a bed of hay.” Suddenly many other angels came down from heaven and joined in praising God. They said: “Praise God in heaven! Peace on earth to everyone who pleases God.” (Luke 2:8-13 CEV)
Up till this time, the Catholic church used the old language of Latin to sing all their songs. This was definitely not the language of the common man - so most of the songs were quite melodic and enjoyable to the ear - but missed the connection to the common man's heart. This burdened Francis greatly - hence he made his move to bring the music to a level whereby we might understand the joy of Christmas and experience the peace of God's presence ourselves. At the time, he didn't write all the music to which the carols are set, but he took the "words" of the song and set them to some of the commonly sung songs of the day. This is not an uncommon practice, as a song can have a different set of lyrics and take on quite a different meaning. These came to be known as "carols" - popular songs with a new set of lyrics - all bringing forth the joy and celebration of Christmas!
The term "carol" was first used of some pretty pagan type of worship, in which the pagan tradition of dancing around in circles to celebrate the Winter Solstice was associated. Yet, Francis saw something in this enthusiastic display of "worship" which was missing at the Christmas celebrations - the joy, enthusiasm, and creative jubilee of celebrating the birth of Jesus. Up until this time, "worship" in the church was quite somber and lacked the enthusiasm we are used to seeing in today's culture in so many a church. Did you also know that Francis was tagged as the first to set up the nativity scene we have come to enjoy as part of our holiday decor this time of year. In turn, he wanted to write yet another tune to celebrate this - one set in Latin again, but now set to a tune others in the community could recognize. Although the song remained in Latin so it could be sung during the mass, the tune was easily recognizable. Psalmus in Nativitate was the first song to be labeled as a Christmas carol - a tradition of caroling was begun.
It should come as no surprise to the believer that the season we call "Advent" or the "Christmas Season" is one of great celebration. It was marked first with a call to celebrate the coming of the Messiah - the babe born in a manger over 2,000 years ago. The call to celebrate did not fall on deaf ears - for waiting shepherds who knew no other response than to be obedient to the instructions to "discover and celebrate" is a story retold through the generations and recorded for all of eternity in the scriptures. The purpose of the first carol was a call to "discover and celebrate". All of the carols originally were sung as a similar call - come and celebrate the birth of Jesus the Messiah! It wasn't until much later, perhaps as late as the 19th century, that carols began to veer away from this proclamation of truth about Christ and become a little more "lightly" penned to included characters like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph, and Santa.
The carols of old were really for one purpose - to celebrate one's faith in Christ - with enthusiastic joy and celebratory glee. Now, that is something we don't want to lose sight of this Christmas season - the celebration of Jesus - the enjoyment of his peace - and the expression of his gift of eternal life in absolute abandon to him! Just sayin!