When did you first experience that “Advent feeling?” Was it when we began to sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel?” During this Advent and Christmas time, hymns play an important part in our liturgical life.
It’s likely the use of Christmas hymns in our church dates back to 129 AD, when a song called “Angel’s Hymn” was sung at a Christmas service in Rome. However, since they were sung in Latin, Christmas hymns remained unpopular for many centuries because that language was not understood by many.
St. Francis of Assisi recognized the unpopularity of Christmas hymns, and set out to change it by the singing of hymns through his Nativity plays in Italy. The people in the plays sang songs or “canticles” that told the story within the play. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but, normally, they were in a native language so that the people watching the play could understand.
Before carol singing in public became popular, there were sometimes official carol singers (mostly in Britain) called “waits.” These were bands of people led by important local leaders. They were called “waits” because they only sang on Christmas Eve. (This was sometimes known as “watchnight” or “waitnight” because of the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them.) Think about it; we have followed this ancient practice as we have spent this time of Advent and anticipation of Christmas in watchful waiting. We, too, are the “Waits!”
One intriguing song about our faith is the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Granted, “seven swans a swimming” does not carry the liturgical weight of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” but, according to legend, very basic teachings of the Catholic Church are hidden in this song. For example, the partridge in a pear tree is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, symbolically presented as a mother partridge which feigns injury to decoy predators from her chicks. The two turtledoves remind us of the Old and New Testaments. Three French hens, tell of faith, hope and charity, the theological virtues …
How wonderful that carols hold thousands of years of Christian history.
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.