Technically, a good Easter carol could be the “Bunny Hop,” which was a big hit for Ray Anthony in 1952. Gene Autry’s 1950’s “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” would be of the same nature. No, they aren’t carols because of their Eastery lyrics, but because they inspire us to dance.
True carols derive from peasant dances with catchy tunes that everyone could sing. The Old French word carole, which means “to dance in a round,” comes to us from an old Greek word choraulein which means to dance to a flute. Think about dancing around a Maypole and you get the idea.
St. Francis of Assisi, in the 13th century, is credited with giving us true Christmas carols, tunes that make us want to dance. 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.”
(Remember that “Messiah” isn’t only for Christmas, but quite popular at Easter, especially for The Hallelujah Chorus — which gets everyone out of their seats — and the hymn “I Know My Redeemer Liveth.”)
What we could call “church Easter carols” — that were not used at Mass, but incorporated into the Liturgy of the Hours — go back to at least the time of St. Ambrose of Milan, who was a fourth century bishop. Ambrose also wrote one of the first Christmas hymns, “Veni Redemptor Gentium.” Ambrose’s work, while glorious in theme, wasn’t really suited for dancing. His best known Easter hymn is “Hic est Dies Verus Dei” (“This is the very day of God, serene with holy light it came, in which the stream of sacred blood, swept o’er the world’s crime and shame.”)
Fr. F. Joseph Kelly, an expert in church music, reviewed the history of ancient Easter hymns through medieval poets England’s St. Bede and up to the music of the great composer like Handel and Mozart, with his Resurrexit.
“From the angelic hymn which had its echo in the carol of the shepherds, and the Alleluias of Easter morn, down through the ages,” Fr. Kelly wrote, “an endless train of poetry and music has sprung up to commemorate these two great events in the Redemption of the human race. A true carol sings of the twofold Birth of Christ, at Bethlehem and at the Resurrection. This is the elemental idea of every carol. … ‘everything that has breath’ is invoked not otherwise than the stars, winds, dews, frosts, lightnings, green things, fish, fowls and beasts.”
So, in the sense of St. Francis’ love for all creatures and the joy that all creation shares in because of Christ’s resurrection, speaking about Peter Cottontail hopping along seems just a little less secular in its nature.
Robert Copeland, a Christian musician and former chairman of the music department at Geneva College, noted that “carols were often written by educated men and women whose goal was to provide songs that were attractive as well as instructive. These were neither true folk songs nor hymns intended for the liturgy; rather, they were songs that corresponded roughly to some of today’s ‘Contemporary Christian’ hits. In contrast to medieval hymns, which were doctrinal and contemplative, these popular carols showed a tender compassion for the poverty, pain and emotions of real people.”
Irving Berlin’s “In Your Easter Bonnet,” sung so beautifully by Judy Garland in 1940, also has a carol-like, dancing theme — think of Judy and Fred Astaire. However, it also touches on real life in the 1940s, a bit of where life intersects faith. A new bonnet was a big thing in ending days of the Great Depression. Spending money on a new hat when money was tight seemed frivolous. But it also indicated hope, a trust in a future that would be better. Isn’t that the message of Easter?
And, speaking of new clothes, remember that, in the early church, those who were newly baptized at the Easter Vigil received a new white robe to wear. They would again wear the robes on Pentecost, giving that day an alternate name of Whitsunday.
So when you are in Mass on Easter and the popular hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” peals out (written in 1788 by the Anglican cleric and Methodism founder, Charles Wesley, and set to music by his brother, John, in 1739), you might think about dancing. After all, the lyrics include these words: “Soar we now where Christ has led, following our exalted head; Made like him, like him we rise; Ours the cross, the grave, the skies!”
Just makes you feel like dancing, doesn’t it?
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The Ecclesiastical Review”; catholicculture.org; aquinasandmore.com; “Reformed Worship”; “The Oxford Book of Carols”; wikipedia.org.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.