The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is marking its 20th anniversary during this Year of Faith, follows a long tradition of teachings of the Catholic Church. As we saw last month, the word “catechism” comes from a Greek word that means “to echo” as in “to instruct orally.” Exactly what the Von Trapp children do in learning the musical scale in “Do, Re, Mi.”
Some Christmas carols do the same. For echoing, nothing beats “The Carol of the Bells,” which has few lyrics that speak of the spiritual side of the holiday, but its echo of steeple bells certainly brings our minds to church.
While Christmas songs have been part of church tradition since at least the fourth century — when celebrating the feast of Christ’s birth was becoming universal in the church — the originals were more in the form of hymns and chants. True carols that we hear at Christmas pageants and from carolers at our doors come to us courtesy of St. Francis of Assisi. Not only did St. Francis start the tradition of Nativity scenes (in 1223) — because he desired to show us the humanity and humility of Christ — he also brought us true carols, tunes that make us want to dance.
Carols derive from peasant dances, like those done around a Maypole, with catchy tunes that everyone could sing. The Old French word carole, which means to dance in a round, comes from an old Greek word choraulein which means to dance to a flute. (Think “Pat-a-pan” as a Christmas carol and you get the picture.)
Francis loved the idea of dancing for joy that Christ was born and even wrote a Latin Christmas carol called “Psalmus in Nativitate.” One of its lyrics reads: “O, my heart is full of mirth, at Jesus’ birth.” The carol was later incorporated into Handel’s “Messiah.”
Many carols followed Francis’ lead. In studying carols as teaching songs, we can do so by following the pattern of the catechism and the path of the four pillars of faith. As they now appear in the Catechism of the Church, these four are: the Creed or our profession of faith; life in Christ patterned on the Ten Commandments and the beatitudes; the sacraments; and prayer.
‘12 days’ Carol
The classic teaching carol is “The 12 Days of Christmas” — with the partridge in the pear tree representing Christ, and God as “my true love.” A quaint tradition says that this carol was developed during Catholic persecutions in England following the Protestant Reformation. However, it is more likely “The 12 Days” developed as a “memory and forfeits” game, also popular at that time, and also used as a teaching tool. In the game, one person says the first part of a phrase, and another has to correctly complete the phrase, or forfeit their turn. For example, one might say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag” and someone else completes with “of the United States of America.”
Several other carols follow this pattern. For example, say “Joy to the world” and it is immediately followed by “the Lord has come,” which is certainly a simple profession of faith. (Try this with other favorite carols.)
More broadly, many Christmas carols can be grouped around the four pillars of faith:
Pillar one: The Creed or profession of faith. There’s “Silent Night” which echoes the Apostles Creed’s words “born of the Virgin Mary.” And the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” echoes “God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”
Pillar two: Life in Christ. Christmas carols provide limitless fodder here, but “Good King Wenceslaus” with his acts of mercy for the poor comes readily to mind.
Pillar three: The sacraments. Both the Eucharist and reconciliation can be seen in the verse of “What Child is This” that reminds us that “for sinners here, the silent word is pleading.”
Pillar four: Prayer. Nearly any spiritual carol for Christmas could fall into the category of prayer including “O Holy Night” and “Adestes Fideles” (O Come All Ye Faithful.)
Try it yourself as this Advent season approaches Christmas. When you hear a carol, think of it as a memory and forfeit game, or fit it into one of the catechism’s four pillars. Soon it will come as naturally as “do, re, mi.”
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; catholicculture.org; aquinasandmore.com; musicanet.org; “Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Priest” magazine, Dec. 2007; and Women for Faith and Family at www.wf-f.org.