Remembering Coventry’s Carol

Lisa Brunetti, an artist and friend who blogs from her home in Ecuador, stopped by The Task at Hand recently to share some Christmas memories. While visiting friends who live next to the Catholic church in her town, she noticed many people on their way to Christmas Eve Mass who were carrying the Christ-child from their families’ nativity scenes. The babies were placed on the altar and then, at midnight, each was carried back home and returned to its manger. Her friends’ manger, in front of their shop, was surrounded by chairs. Through the course of the evening, people took turns stopping by, sitting and singing songs until the Baby Jesus was safely home.

It’s a lovely tradition, echoed here in the United States by families and congregations who leave the manger empty until Christmas Day.  Still, it’s worth considering that different contexts can help to transform one culture’s sincere expression of faith into something quite different.  In the United States, we’re clearly tempted toward sentimentality. With Baby Jesus tucked away in his manger, we sigh over the loveliness of his mother, admire the steadfastness of his father, give a nod to his humble surroundings and go our way. What comes next isn’t our concern.

Our willingness to abandon the Christ-child to eternal infancy shouldn’t be surprising. As a society, we’ve little taste for the exigencies of history or the implacable movement of time. Everyone knows parents who insist on seeing their forty-year-old offspring as children, innocent and  pure.

Life doesn’t allow for such freeze-frames, of course. Gazing in delight at the innocent babe in the bassinet is only the beginning.  Soon enough comes colic and teething, followed closely by the Terrible Twos.  Eventually, orthodontists, tutors or therapists come knocking at the door.  Suddenly, the driver’s license becomes unavoidable, as does that awkward young man with the skateboard and tattoo who appears to know the daughter we’d assumed was back in her bedroom, reading.

Sometimes life hands out worse – a Saturday night call from jail, a suspension from school, terrible choices in friends.  Illness diverts the flow of life, or accidental injury.  Life is unpredictable at best, unavoidable at worst.  We never know what’s just around the bend, heading straight for us, perfectly capable of  doing in our children and us along with them.

In countries less fortunate than the United States, life for children tends to be more predictable but less survivable.   Preventable diseases like measles and malaria, environmental scourges like shistosomiasis and simple malnutrition regularly decimate the  young. Violence, insurrection, civil war and genocide kill or displace hundreds of thousands every year.  While our celebrations romanticize a single stable, children born today into stables and barns, refugee camps, colonias, barrios and slums around the world suffer and die.   They are defenseless, with few advocates, and their needs rarely are considered.  They are innocents in every sense of the word.  They have done nothing to deserve their fate.

The Christian Feast of The Holy Innocents, celebrated on December 28, commemorates the death of such defenseless children.  As recorded in the New Testament, Rome’s man in Judea already was wearing his crown a little uneasily when Jesus was born.  Given to tyrannical and repressive behavior, King Herod the Great lived in a state of hypervigilance, fearing Rome and his own subjects equally.  After a visit from the Magi, the traditional Wise Men from the East who prophesied the birth of another, more powerful ruler capable of usurping his authority, Herod is said to have ordered the slaughter of all Bethlehem boys under the age of two.

Whether the massacre is historical fact remains an open question, although evidence abounds that Herod’s ferocity was real, even when it came to his own sons. But no matter how many Bethlehem children actually died by Herod’s hand, their Feast Day stands as a reminder that power is not always kindly disposed toward innocence. In every age and across multitudes of circumstance, power seeks to maintain itself at the expense of the defenseless.

One of the most poignant and mournful of  Christmas songs commemorates the killing of those defenseless infants. Named after Coventry, England, the 16th century Coventry Carol formed part of the Medieval Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The Pageant itself may be rooted in 14th century morality plays that tradesmen provided as entertainment for towns. Certainly, it’s one of the oldest unadapted carols we have.  It retains both the original tune (English melody, 1591) and lyrics (words attributed to Robert Croo, 1534)  Both were recorded in 1591, and their preservation makes the Coventry Mystery Plays especially memorable.

(“Coventry Carol” Sung by Collegium Vocale Gent ~ Click to Play)
Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay
Lullay, Thou little Tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay.
O sisters, too, how may we do
For to preserve this day,
This poor Youngling for whom we do sing
By, by, lully, lullay.
Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
Then woe is me, poor child for thee,
And ever mourn and sigh
For thy parting, neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

It’s no surprise that Coventry’s carol rarely is heard in retail spaces during the Christmas season, but it’s equally uncommon in congregational settings. Medievalists love it, as do madrigal groups and chamber singers, but it’s not Joy to the World, Silent Night or Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.  Urged to move beyond lovely familial scenes bathed in golden light toward a feast memorializing the slaughter of children, even this violence-ridden culture seems to hesitate. 

Despite its richness and depth, and perhaps because of its unapologetic realism, the Coventry Carol has become one of a multitude of Christmas customs, traditions and songs  rarely experienced today.  Too archaic in language, too bleak in tone, too reflective of realities we prefer to ignore and far too straightforward in its recognition of innocent death, the Coventry Carol makes us nervous.

Ignoring reality has its perils, of course. Birth is only the beginning. Life is movement, time passes and history continues to unfold. Herod may be gone but his successors live on, determined to preserve their positions of power at the expense of innocent life.

Certainly we are free to turn away, to avert our faces, to imagine ourselves innocent of complicity in events unfolding in time.  But we cannot profess to love the babe in the manger if we choose to ignore the needs of children living among us.  If we can come to see in Bethlehem’s stall every child of Christmas, if we dare to preserve against slaughter every poor youngling for whom the angels sing, we may yet free them from the world’s hand, transforming their song of darkness into a dance of light.

Dancing Coventry Carol ~ Farah Canale, Principal, Anchorage Ballet

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  1. What a beautiful and sobering post. Ten minutes ago I read a post by third-eye-mom about the crisis in syria. Yes, it’s so easy to reflect on the history and ignore what’s right in front of us. Thank you, dear sensitive and wise friend! z

    • Z,

      Yes, it’s true that it’s easy to ignore what’s in front of us. But the other side of that particular coin is that it can be very difficult to truly see what’s in front of us – even if we’re willing to look.

      I don’t have to tell you any of this. You’re accustomed to looking at the world, and then using your skills and talents to make your vision accessible to others – giving them a world of zebra rocks! The next step – helping others to see – is a little harder, but it can be done. Maybe we should designate 2013 “The Year of Vision”.

      Linda

      • 2013 – The Year of Vision – is an incredible suggestion! Yes, one must learn how to see! You are doing a great job with that through your posts, and this one is a great example.

        • Thanks, Z. There’s no question there will be more amazements in the year to come!

  2. I wasn’t aware of that carol. Thanks for bringing it into the light. We don’t have to read the gospels too far past the nativity scene before hearing Simeon on the one hand rejoicing because he had lived to see the savior, but on the other hand casting a shadow over the futures of Jesus and his mother.

    • Charles,

      It’s a beautiful carol, a musical gem still shining after 500 years. You can see Collegium Vocale Gent performing the carol on YouTube. They’ve been kind enough to make it freely available in multiple formats, including the mp3 I used.

      Your mention of Simeon brought to mind T.S.Eliot’s initial line of “East Coker” – “In my beginning is my end”. The sense of foreshadowing is the same, although Eliot, like the gospels, provides a twist at the end of the poem by declaring, “In my end is my beginning”.

      Linda

  3. You have written what I have been unable to put into words. I’ve never heard of the Feast of Holy Innocents. It is a sobering thought, indeed.
    May I have your permission to read parts of this at a church thing I’m hosting on the 12 of Jan?

    I’ve always liked the haunting melody of the Coventry Carol but never knew the story behind it. I guess I didn’t listen close enough either. The video was beautiful.

    • merryme,

      Long ago, in the days of tapes and tape players, this song was included in one of my collections of carols. I listened to it and enjoyed it for several years, but without printed lyrics I never fully grasped it, either. I thought it was just a lullaby, soft and sweet. It’s much more interesting than that!

      Of course you can read as much of this as you wish at your gathering. I’m honored that you’d like to share it. If you want to download the mp3, you can find that here.

      Isn’t the dance wonderful? It tickles me that I have two versions of the song in the post – one from the 1500s, and one that’s very modern electronic music. That’s staying power!

      Linda

  4. I’ve always like the “mysteries” and Passion plays of those time periods – and how they impacted/were a part of society then.
    Thanks for the melody – hadn’t actually heard it.

    When I was growing up the manger scene wasn’t put out all at once..the shepherds arrived after the baby Jesus(Angels visited them as they tended their flocks)…and the 3 wise men took a while to get there…inching closer always from the east (Boy Scout compass). So it was a retelling of the story over several days.

    Lovely Christmas post.

    • phil,

      I found a particularly nice resource while I was writing this – Medieval Drama: An Introduction. In some ways it was a refresher course, and I know at least a couple of teachers who would be most upset with me that I needed a refresher!

      We never had a nativity set, and neither did my grandparents. I suspect I know why, but that’s part of a different story for a different day. I do very much like the “dramatic” way you staged yours. A tableau is nice, but acting out the story is better. We did have Christmas programs at my childhood church that involved a good bit of tinsel (for angelic halos), lots of bathrobes (shepherds and kings) and always, but always, someone’s baby sister or brother for Jesus. The last one of those I attended was down in South Texas. It was outdoors, and there were a couple of goats and a horse added. It was a huge success!

      Linda

  5. “But we cannot profess to love the babe in the manger if we choose to ignore the needs of children living among us.” Amen to that.

    Maurice Sendak said “I refuse to lie to children”. Is the world kinder and gentler? I think it’s just wearing a different hat. I prefer the old European folk tales to much of what is offered for children to read now. They actually taught valuable life lessons.

    • Martha,

      It’s pretty easy to confuse love-the-emotion with love-the-action. I suppose getting that sorted out is part of growing up.

      When Sendak died, I read several reviews, obits and so on. One of his statements that stuck with me was, “I don’t scare children. I scare parents”. I think that’s right. Children are tougher, more resiliant, than many parents realize – and much closer to the world of those folk tales. They certainly do have lessons to teach – and very useful ones at that.

      Linda

      • Oh, gosh. You go back and read fairy tales published 50 or more years ago. They are violent as the dickens.

        If you can find original Andrew Lang Red, Green, Yellow and Blue Fairy Tale books, they’ll scare your socks off. But I enjoyed them, when I was a child. I don’t remember being frightened by them. As Linda says, they did teach very valuable life lessons.

        The fairy tales you find now have been sanitized beyond recognition. They wouldn’t say, ‘Boo’ to a goose and are not worth reading, IMHO.

        • I’ve not heard of Andrew Lang or those books, although I’m certainly familiar with many of the tales. I did find a new one in The Blue Book, called “Toads and Diamonds” . I confess – I do like seeing nasty people getting their comeuppance! It’s a great story. I’m eager to explore around a bit more!

          • I had a battered copy of the Blue Book, I think it was. It belonged to Mama when she was young. I have no idea what happened to it. It may have just fallen completely apart and got thrown out years ago. I just don’t remember doing it.

            Hehehehe…… it is fun to see nasty people get theirs! Fairy tales allow us to indulge in our Dark Sides in a safe way.

            • That’s right. And they allow us to deal with fears in a safe way, too. The Three Billy Goats Gruff helped me get over a fear of our dark basement!

  6. Hello Linda:

    I was aware of the death order given by King Herod, but I had no idea it was related to The Christian Feast of the Holy Innocents.

    In Panama on December 28 we celebrate the “Day of the Innocents” or “Día de los Inocentes”. On this day newspapers, radio stations and ordinary people make jokes just about anything. Sometimes the pranks or jokes are way overblown and people get very irritated. Even though at the end, the jokers say it’s “Día de los Inocentes”.

    I remember one time somebody called a friend on the phone and told him that his father had died, After a while he called back, and with a loud laughter, said it was “Día de los Inocentes.” You can imagine the reaction of the person who received the call.

    People are always suspicious of the news on this day, which by the way, is tomorrow.

    Regards,
    Omar.-

    • Omar,

      I’d never heard of Día de los Inocentes, but I see it’s also celebrated in Spain, and that it’s very much like our April Fools’ Day. The connection between the Church’s Feast Day and the secular fun seems to go back to a time when the children were allowed to “rule the day.” The youngest would decide the day’s foods, drinks, music, entertainments, and so on. Somewhere I read that in monasteries the youngest would switch places with the abbot, but I can’t find that link just now.

      In any event, it sounds like quite a day. I can’t imagine calling anyone – friend or enemy – and telling them their father had died. I have an idea what my reaction would be, and it wouldn’t be good. I do remember having some fun with my mom on April Fools’ Day, but there was nothing quite so distressing involved – and I never let her believe my foolishness more than a few minutes. (The truth is, I’d always start laughing and ruin the joke!)

      Now I’m curious to ask Lisa if this is a custom in Ecuador, also. I suspect it might be. In any event, I promise not to tease you with any fake emails or such!

      Linda

    • Eve confirms that the Day of the Innocents in the Philippines has become something like our April Fools’ Day, given the way that innocence can shade into gullibility:

      http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/118295/bishop-innocents%E2%80%99-day-is-no-time-for-pranks

      • Ah, gullibility. I have a friend who swears my tombstone should be inscribed with the single word, “REALLY?”

        Right on time, today’s edition of The Mail Online trumpeted Gerard Piques’ Twitter announcement that he and Shakira had a new son. Subsequently, he announced that no, it all had been a “Dia de los Inocentes” prank. The child’s given name, according to the fake tweet? Inocencio, of course!

  7. I just keep learning more each time that I read your insightful, inspiring, and thought-provoking posts. You are indeed a teacher and one that most people will not forget if they have met you or read your words.

    I had lots more to say but I had too many typos and when I tried to correct those the cursor would not behave so I erased my 2 cents worth.

    Thank you again for the lovely music and the ballet. Both were simply beautiful. And this post was wonderful, as they all are, but this one is a gem. Richly worded in just the right way. I think that you should be writing books.

    PS: How do you turn off the like button?

    Regards,
    Yvonne

    • Yvonne,

      Don’t worry about typos. Everyone has them, and if they pop up and I notice them, I just correct them.

      As for the like button, it’s not turned off, but I have disabled the avatar function. I still know who “likes” my posts, but the little portrait doesn’t appear. If you go to your dashboard and look for settings/discussion, you’ll find the avatar options near the bottom of the page.

      Both the music and the dance are beautiful, aren’t they? I love the effect that’s been added to the video. It’s remarkable what can be done. (I was going to say “so easily”, but I have a feeling the person who put that video together spent a good bit of time on it.)

      So nice to have you stop by – I do try to get things “just right”, and I’m happy you thought I did with this post.

      Linda

      • Thank you, Linda. I have not looked at the settings thingy but I will in a bit.

        Yvonne

  8. I had never heard of the Coventry Carol or the Feast of the Holy Innocents. I’ll have to ask my cousin if that Feast Day is commenorated by the Catholic Church or not. It would be the only church I could think of, that possibly would.

    From the lyrics of the carol, I’m not surprised that it is relatively unknown, outside certain circles. It does not fit in with what we’re used to hearing during the Christmas season. It is a mournful song and we associate Christmas with joy and wonder.

    I loved the ballet video and the filming technique. The graceful trails left by her arms and legs made me think of angel wings, as if angels were gathering in the innocent souls of the children.

    • Gué,

      Oh! I am worn out with learning! As it turns out, the Assyrian Church celebrates the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 27. December 28 is the day for the Roman Catholic Church, and then, on the 29th, the Eastern Orthodox – unless they’re following the Julian calendar, in which case it’s celebrated thirteen days later. I found all this on a page which also provided this remarkable piece of art.

      It really is something to ponder. While the rest of the world says “OK – Christmas is over!” on the 25th and heads out for the after-Christmas sales, they’re not only missing The Feast of the Holy Innocents but also The Feast of St. Stephen on the 26th (Boxing Day, as we know!) St. Stephen’s Day got memorialized in “Good King Wenceslas”, but otherwise keeps a pretty low profile. I imagine both of these days are more important to believers who live in places where the phrase “war on Christmas” has more than metaphorical meaning.

      I love the video, too, and I love your interpretation. Barefoot was a little surprised when she learned ballet is alive and well in Anchorage. You can see some nice pics of Ms. Canale on this
      Ballet Academy page.
      She’s the one in the black and white top.

      And, just to feed your inner Brit, there’s this tidbit that I love. The feast also is called “Childermas”, and “In Cornwall no housewife would scour or scrub on Childermas, and in Northamptonshire it was considered very unlucky to begin any undertaking or even to do washing throughout the year on the day of the week on which the feast fell.”

      Linda

      • Ah, I forgot about the Assyrian and Orthodox churches.

        That was an interesting image, with the swaddled babes. There is such a unique style to eastern religious art.

        I wonder if Childermas is still observed in Cornwall or if they’ve gotten to modern and blinded by Commercial Christmas to be bothered?

        • I’ve been looking around, and found this page on Cornish customs. I’m sure I’ve heard Sandi talk about some of these, such as the silver coin on the doorstep. We’ll have to ask her. Some of these customs no doubt were common in other places, like Yorkshire. I was amazed to find four-and-twenty-blackbird pie mentioned! I thought that was purely imaginary!

  9. What a stunning and enlightening post.

    • Thanks, Julie. It sounds like you were able to pretty much dance through your family celebration, too – I’m glad!

  10. I wonder just how much we have really learned from history. Or from society.

    • montucky,

      Apparently, however much we’ve learned, it’s not enough. Of course, knowledge and will are quite different. I can know that I shouldn’t have that second bowl of ice cream, but do I have the will to pass it by? Now and then I do, but sometimes I choose to act in a way I know to be unhealthy.

      It’s an old problem. Sometimes, it’s a serious problem – far more serious than my bowl of ice cream. There’s the little matter of national debt and deficit, for example. I can’t imagine there’s a legislator who doesn’t know we should cut spending. Now, go find me one with the will to do it. ;)

      Linda

  11. I’ve heard the Coventry Carol, mostly on Christmas albums rather than in retail settings, but didn’t know about the Feast of the Holy Innocents. You are right to bring contemporary application to the plight today’s children. With roomie involved with several shelters for women with children, we often have conversations about kids growing up with so little stability. You don’t have to think too far to find heartbreak.

    • nikkipolani,

      I was caught in past days by articles noting that some children in Britain added “a father” to the list of things they’d like for Christmas, and others detailing the statistics on fatherless homes in this country.

      Violence takes a multitude of forms, and the forces tearing apart families are real. Sometimes an abusive parent is the problem. Sometimes, it’s an abusive system. Sometimes, it’s just circumstance. Everyone suffers, even if they don’t recognize it. But the children’s suffering is far too often hidden. They need advocates like your roomie to speak for them.

      Linda

  12. Omar explained “el día de los inocentes” and you explained its origins. I am aware of it in Mexico and Spain, and Omar confirmed that some observe it in Panama–a rather festive twist. I learned so much in this post.

    At our house we rejoiced at having the children, young and old, under our roof for a brief time. The last day the youngest spent with us, his parents were off to the doctor as he had developed a terrible rash. We found out later in the day it was a reaction to the antibiotic treating an ear infection. How perfect these babes are and yet we are reminded of their unique fragility. Neither parent had been allergic to that medication as a child. What other unknowns lie ahead?

    • Georgette,

      And I’ve learned that it’s also quite a big deal in Ecuador, especially in towns like Cuenca, where it appears to be very much like our Mardi Gras celebrations – parades, costumes, extravagant behavior (!) and so on.

      Your comment about the little ones’ “unique fragility” is a good reminder of the importance of dealing with everyone, young and old, as an individual. What causes grief to one may not affect another in the least. What seems like indifference to one may be gratefully accepted by another as tolerance and freedom to find their own way.

      The trick, of course, is to pay attention. All of us have situations or people who make us “break out in a rash”. Correct diagnosis and proper treatment are critical!

      Linda

  13. And leaving behind a world full of more guns and violence is a terrible legacy. How in the world do children these days remain innocent? Adults are complicit in the theft of their innocence and I don’t believe that ratings on movies and video games has made a bit of difference. We have more violence in our lives, not less. We have to do better.

    • Snoring Dog Studio,

      We do, indeed, have more violence in our lives. The first step in the process that led to my tossing out my television was the degradation of the so-called “news programs”. I got to the point where I was turning them off more often than I was watching. The network made no difference, The level of anger and vitriol was unacceptable. It felt violent, and I didn’t need it.

      I rarely go to films in theaters, but two weeks ago I did. I was appalled by the half-hour filled with trailers for films and games. I can deal with violence, and I don’t faint at the sight of blood, but this was of a different order entirely. I have to believe that hours spent each day with such games would be desensitizing. Just as “news” and “entertainment” are nearly indistinguishable now, I fear the line between “game violence” and real events in a very real world can become dangerously blurred.

      We do have to do better. For me, a first step is refusing to participate in the degradation of our culture. I suppose that sounds snobbish, but the fact is there are people playing to our basest impulses, and I resent that. I’m no more fond of a prettified, spun-sugar world. Finding a way through the extremes can be tough.

      Linda

      • I’m with you, Linda. I refuse to take part as well. I want my remaining years on this planet to be ones that celebrate life, not death and violence.

  14. Your previous post reminded me of a wistful and some would say world-weary poem by Thomas Hardy. I didn’t bring it up then because I didn’t want to contravene your upbeat tone, but now that you’ve moved into the less comforting side of the season, especially as it relates to the innocence of children, here’s the poem. Note the year, 1915, when World War I was already a reality in Europe.

    “The Oxen”
    by Thomas Hardy (1915)

    Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
    “Now they are all on their knees,”
    An elder said as we sat in a flock
    By the embers in hearthside ease.

    We pictured the meek mild creatures where
    They dwelt in their strawy pen.
    Nor did it occur to one of us there
    To doubt they were kneeling then.

    So fair a fancy few believe
    In these years! Yet, I feel,
    If someone said on Christmas Eve
    “Come; see the oxen kneel

    “In the lonely barton by yonder comb
    Our childhood used to know,”
    I should go with him in the gloom,
    Hoping it might be so.

    • Steve,

      I’m getting better at this. “Barton”, I found, is a farm yard. The word’s from the Old English “beretun”, from “bere” (barley) + “tun” (stockade). “Comb” was a little harder, but the Collins English has it with a variety of spellings, meaning “(in mainly Southern England) a short valley or deep hollow, esp in chalk areas”.

      Knowing the words certainly helps to set the scene. It is a lovely, wistful poem, reminiscent of the legend of the talking animals on Christmas Eve. And who’s to say? I’ve lived for decades knowing that, on one Christmas Eve in the 1950s, I saw the Star of Bethlehem. Perhaps the eyes of children aren’t so clouded.

      My father would have been three when this was written, and no doubt sitting near his own family’s hearth. That’s a lovely thought.

      Linda

      • Happy etymological delving to you. The tun that is the second element of barton is essentially the same word as town, which in Old English meant ‘enclosed place, village.’

        Your description of the poem as wistful is just right. Hard to believe that 1915 is now almost a century ago.

        • As my dear, quirky, malapropistic great-aunt Rilla would say, “Tempus Fidgets”!

    • I just was looking for some information on customs in Cornwall, and found this paragraph: “Many elderly people at the beginning of the present century still kept the “old style”, and held their Christmas-day on Epiphany. On the eve of that day they said “the cattle in the fields and stalls never lay down, but at midnight turned their faces to the east and fell on their knees.”

      The linked piece also refers to pies made of four-and-twenty blackbirds, in the West of Cornwall. Keep that in mind when your flocks come back!

  15. Ah, this carol has been a favorite for ages, from when our church sang it at xmas eve service when I was a wee lass and stood listening, aspiring to sing in the choir as well! This is a lovely piece you’ve rendered here.

    We do, at our house, also bring in the Christ child to the manger (built by my Dad to be under the tree year after year and the figures painted and glazed by my Mom) on Christmas Eve…the joy and anticipation at holiday runs so deep and strong…you’ve evoked wonderful memories while yet we are all on the path of creating new ones! Always enjoy your holiday posts, especially.

    • oh,

      Merry Christmas to you! Of course you had a surfeit of Merry and Bright – I’ve seen those lovely photos.

      I’m so glad to bring you a memory. It is a lovely carol, isn’t it? And how we all longed to be in the “big choir”, singing such beautiful songs.

      The way many bring the Christ Child to the manger reminds me of the lovely custom I learned when I moved here to Texas. “La Posada” isn’t just the name of great hotels and restaurants – it’s the customer of following Mary and Joseph’s journey through the days preceding Christmas. The anticipation always is a great part of the celebration – perhaps the greatest part.

      It’s been such a delight to have you back with us in this season. I hope we’ll see more of you in the coming year!

      Linda

  16. What a beautiful and inspiring post, as always… One must remember those innocents today with few, or no advocates to help them. Those with no voice. I always love how you incorporate literature and the arts into your essays, to more fully articulate the focus. Fascinating.

    • FeyGirl,

      And just to push the point a tiny bit, many of the photographers I follow – you, Phil, montucky, Steve Schwarzman, Judy Lovell – are doing your part on behalf of another sort of “innocent” – the trees, flowers, birds and creatures who do have their own voice but who often have a very, very hard time making it heard in the hubbub of our world. Each of you functions as an advocate, even while you educate, entertain and offer up beauty to the rest of us!

      Linda

      • How beautifully, perfectly and poetically said… Completely true. I may have to nab that as a future quote!! (Attributed of course, with a link-back.)

        I’m optimistic that *more* people are opening their hearts and their talents to speak for those that don’t have a voice that we can’t necessarily hear with our physical ears… (wink).

        • It makes me happy that you think I “got it right”. You’re far more immersed in the natural world than I am, and far more sensitive to those voices.

          By the way! The ibis were back, late yesterday afternoon. It was too dark and gloomy for photos, but they were grazing through the same territory, “talking” to one another as they did. It was so wonderful to see them. This time, there were two other people who’d stopped to watch, too, and it didn’t seem to bother them at all.

          • It’s so funny…. I see ibis all the time down here, and never think to shoot them. But in honor of your comment, that evening I captured a few!! When I have time to transfer the oh-I-don’t-want-to-think-how-many-images from my camera, I’ll post a few lovelies from the wetlands!!!

            :)

  17. Thanks so much for this. I knew the tune from a global carol CD, which had the tune in another language. Thanks for the opportunity to see and hear them in English. It brought to mind Bach’s Christmas Oratio, which has enough echoes with his Passion pieces to remind the hearer of the broader story. Best to you in the New Year! Allen

    • Allen,

      Funny – the first phrase that came to mind when I read your comment was “cultural literacy”. Context is so important. If we don’t know Bach’s Passion pieces, we’ll not hear those echoes in the Christmas Oratorio. If we don’t know something of the Old Testament, we’ll miss a good bit in the story of the slaughter of the Innocents.

      Many years ago, a friend who’d developed quite a reputation as a preacher said his biggest frustration was having to water down his sermons. As he put it, there was a time when he could simply reference a line or two from Shakespeare or Milton, and people immediately grasped its relevance. Over time, people stopped responding because they didn’t know the literature. He’s been gone for twenty years. I wonder what he’d think if he were around today?

      Well – here’s to a New Year filled with wonderful stories and broader contexts!

      Linda

  18. The “Coventry Carol” recalled the city of Coventry, England, (for which it is named, no less) that was devastated by German bombing during WWII. Because they had captured a German Enigma code machine, the British military leaders knew that the Germans were planning a bombing raid on the city of Coventry. However, they felt if they warned the city about the raid, it might tip the Germans off that they had cracked the Enigma code. The city of Coventry was sacrificed as a trade-off for the potential war-shortening and life-saving information they could continue to glean if the Germans did not suspect Enigma had been compromised. For me, this added a layer of bitter irony to the carol’s history.

    Your post also recalled to mind that poster from the early 1970’s that read, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”

    Your post also recalled the Greek play by Euripides, “The Trojan Women.” (Katherine Hepburn made a particularly powerful movie version of this play.) which brings home the point that in any war, the worst casualties are always among the civilians caught in the middle.

    The human race has been breeding for violence for 10 thousand years. We send the fit off to war; the ones that are good at killing people are the ones who survive to come home and breed. (In the meantime, the weak in body and mind have been home breeding while there is no competition.) And yet we don’t understand why ours is such a violent society — !

    • WOL, you said: “The human race has been breeding for violence for 10 thousand years. We send the fit off to war; the ones that are good at killing people are the ones who survive to come home and breed.”

      It has ever been so! I never thought about it in this way. Brilliant! And, sadly, it explains a lot.

      • I have to say I completely disagree with this perspective. When I saw a story suggesting they were going to test Adam Lanza’s DNA for an “evil gene”, I just rolled my eyes – and then I shuddered. Evil is far more complex than that. To say that violence is a result of breeding makes as much sense as saying that the Nazis were right to engage in breeding a “super race”.

        I ran into an example of applying such criteria to human relations years ago, in a completely different context. A friend was going with his father and uncle to a family reunion. His mother wasn’t going. When I asked why she was staying home, he said, “There’s no reason for her to go. My dad just married her. She’s not a (insert familial name) by blood.” I nearly severed the relationship when I blurted out, “But she’s not a damned cow!”

        Of course biological factors can impact an individual’s tendency to violence. And of course some societies can veer into violence and war. Some make a habit of it. But it could just as easily be said that the survivors of war are the most creative, the most courageous, the most committed or the most valorous – even the luckiest, for all that – in which case our society should look quite different.

        In our search for explanations, I think we have to accept both a certain degree of mystery, and the reality that no one explanation will cover every situation. Even with a single killer, multiple causation is the rule – just as it is when we’re confronted with an inexplicably good person.

    • WOL,

      I spent quite a bit of time looking at photos of Coventry Cathedral, both past and present, trying to decide whether to use one as my header photo. In the end, I decided to forego that, in at attempt to keep to a single focus. But you’re exactly right – the history of Coventry is important and fascinating in its own right. It’s a double irony that the code machine was called “Enigma”, since so much of the violence and mayhem in the world continues to be an enigma.

      And I certainly do remember that poster! It was everywhere for a time – even painted on the sides of VW vans and worn on tee shirts. I seem to remember a long-stemmed daisy that accompanied the words – which are true, by the way, but which ended up sounding a bit trite.

      Have you watched the film about the Liberian civil war called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”? It certainly proves your point about the plight of civilians caught in the middle, as well as pointing to the power of civilians to reclaim their lives.

      As for your final point, I had my say on that up above, in my response to Lynda. I need to think about it more. Sometimes I have a strong reaction to something – “I believe that!” “I don’t believe that!” – but it takes me a little time to sort out the reasons for my response.

      Linda

      • I tend to avoid films that I know will contain violence, and the more graphic the violence the more I avoid them. That includes violence to animals as well as to people. I just don’t want to let that kind of imagery into my memory.

        • We certainly have the ability to make choices about what we view on a daily basis. And making those choices can have an effect. The people who are producing music, films, videos and games are interested in money (at least they were the last time I checked) and if the public isn’t willing to pay good money for what they produce, change will might begin.

        • I just bumped into this article about the effect of viewing violence. Obviously, other people are thinking about these issues, too. I thought you’d appreciate the article.

    • the ones that are good at killing people are the ones who survive to come home and breed.

      What a charming sentiment. I’ll have to remember it when Memorial Day and Veterans Day come around.

      • I’ve not personally known many people who’ve lost their lives in service to our country, but I’ve known a few. And I know more than a few veterans, none of whom glory in what they were called to do. All are decent individuals. Some have been terribly traumatized. One or two of those I know are finding it nearly impossible to reintegrate into the life of a nation that finds it too easy to ignore them.

        I don’t know what else to say, except that on Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day, I honor them all. I’m glad you stopped by and gave me opportunity to say so, Al.

  19. As a bit of a heathen I knew nothing about The Feast of the Holy Innocents but I do now, thank you! As usual you have written with such an elegant and light touch about a complex subject.

    It’s very easy to just get caught up in our own lives and ignore a wider perspective which might take in some of the suffering which goes on in the world. I think this is definitely part of a process of desensitising which is not helped by, as you say, the degradation of culture. I also think people feel really powerless to effect change. I know that when we were marching against apartheid in the 1980’s we really felt we could make a difference – and we did! Now, I don’t think people feel that what they say will matter. I’m not sure exactly why.

    I love choral music and I love a mournful melody – what’s not to like? ;)

    • thinkingcowgirl,

      Believe me, not knowing about the Feast of the Holy Innocents has nothing to do with heathen-dom! I’m sure I was well past college before I learned about it, and I’m thinking it would have been a trip to an art gallery that brought it to my attention. When I ponder how much in the world still remains hidden to me, it’s a little overwhelming.

      Which is related to your wider point, I think. Even when we’re open to the world and interested in the lives of others, there’s a good bit of life – and suffering – that escapes us simply because it’s taking place in “another world”, completely outside our realm of experience.

      On the other hand, even for those who are aware and concerned, it can be difficult to know what to do to help effect change. Signing an online petition is a fine first step, but it’s no substitute for specific action in the real world. Even the smallest success can be empowering, and lead to increased change – as you learned! Politicians know that encouraging at atmosphere of fear and a sense of dependence and powerlessness is a good way for them to maintain power for themselves. Many people feel they don’t count because they’ve been made to feel lthat way.

      At least while we’re solving the problems of the world, we have this beautiful music to listen to. Like you, I find a lot to like!

      Linda

  20. You and your writing continue to inspire me, Linda. I’m just sort of speechless at the moment. I know this carol well but also thought it was an ancient musical lullaby. Now, I have lots to think about and to learn about a new topic! Blessings to you in the new year, my literary friend.

    • BW,

      Amazing, isn’t it, that we can live so long with a song and yet not fully understand it? No wonder we have trouble with people! The good news is that we always have the ability to learn more – we just have to look for the opportunities. Think how smart we’ll be by the time 2014 rolls around!

      Linda

  21. I just found this on another blog I follow and thought you might like to have a read, it’s a very thoughtful piece on where we are now.

    • Sarah, thanks for linking that. It is a thoughtful piece, and while there are certain underlying assumptions I don’t agree with, I think it’s becoming increasingly apparent that even people with quite different beliefs can find themselves supporting the same goals. I’m going to let it rest for a day or two and then have another read. Thanks!

  22. Another stunningly beautiful and profound post.

    As you know, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the slaughter of innocents. I strongly considered posting about the Feast of the Holy Innocents, but eventually elected not to. I truly love how you’ve addressed it here.

    I especially appreciate this:

    …power is not always kindly disposed toward innocence. In every age and across multitudes of circumstance, power seeks to maintain itself at the expense of the defenseless.

    You’re right that there is no extra-Biblical support for Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. But there is plenty of historical support for the fact that it would not at all have been out of character for Herod.

    Just as history is filled with atrocities committed by those seeking to obtain power, it is also filled with atrocities committed by those seeking to preserve power.

    May our world someday be one in which there is nothing to be gained from “power.”

    • Bill,

      The attempt to gain and maintain power is everywhere. We tend to think of “power” in terms of governments, bureaucracies and armies, but anyone who’s dealt with a homeowner’s association run amok, a school bully, an unmoderated internet chat room, a city council or even a church council knows that the hunger for power is a strong motivating force.

      The atrocities catch our attention – Herod’s slaughter, the Liberian civil war, the drug wars in Mexico. But the smaller wars, the hidden campaigns of destruction, go on around us every day. In some cases, a sense of powerlessness against these forces can lead individuals directly to suicide or murder. I suspect in most cases it leads to frustration, fear or apathy.

      It may be that “going local” will be part of the answer here, too. Learning how to deal with power-hungry people in the context of our daily lives may be the best preparation for dealing with the larger forces in the world. After all, if we can learn to “speak truth to power” when power is that choir director who thinks she runs the church, what do we have to fear from – well, from anyone? ;)

      Linda

  23. One of my favorite Christmas CDs is called “The Soul of Christmas.” Celtic singer Johnny Cunningham is probably the biggest name on this CD — and he’s not so big to most. Many of the carols on this are more reflective and Coventry Carol is included — sung so very perfectly, so poignantly. But I guess that I never heard or thought of the background behind it. So thank you for that.

    The slaughter of the innocents, unfortunately, exists today — for different reasons from then, of course, yet still powerful and tragic.

    As always you lend insight and depth into the commonplace. That’s why I love coming here.

    • jeanie,

      I was delighted to discover Johnny Cunningham – and his brother Phil. I’d not heard of them, or of Silly Wizard. One listen to this song and I was hooked. Their accordian and fiddle are mainstays of Cajun music, of course, and often are found in traditional string bands, but the sound is quite different. Wonderful!

      Now, I need to find their Christmas music. I suspect that they do as well with ballads, lullabys and other such forms. There are some carols I “collect” different versions of, and I’ll be pleased to add this one.

      It amazes me that we can know so much about the background of a song that’s so old. Obviously, it’s been lovingly preserved and passed down. I have a feeling a few centuries from now, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” won’t be around. (Or maybe that’s a hope!)

      If we’re lucky, or blessed, or both, perhaps this year will be more free of the kind of griefs the song evokes. We’ll hope so. Happy New Year!

      Linda

  24. After reading your post and all the comments before mine I feel as if I’ve just taken a correspondence course! We started in Ecuador on Christmas eve (what a beautiful tradition), the discussion led to parents who don’t allow their children to grow up (My mother for instance who always called me “Her baby!”) listened to a beautifully sung Medieval Carol, and ended at 2nd WW bombing of Coventry

    The painting of “The Massacre of the Innocents” is so gruesome and disturbing, I was shocked to learn it was an illustration for a Bible! My word! So I guess the Medieval citizens wouldn’t have been shocked by the words of the “Coventry Carol”.

    The sky in the photo of the Cathedral in Ecuador is amazing!

    • rosie,

      Isn’t it amazing, the journeys we take? One thought leads to another, perspectives get added, opinions are expressed and voila! We’ve moved from point A to point B – or even to point Q, for all that. I have a friend who used to blog, but who gave it up because he was so frustrated that people wouldn’t stay “on topic” in the comments section. I always thought that was a matter of his control issues more than anything else. I don’t need the spam, but there’s no accounting for what a carol will evoke, like someone’s tale of Christmas past. These threads of memory are what help to make life interesting and hold it together.

      Gruesome? I picked that illustration from a Bible because it was stylized and less disturbing (at least to me) than some of the other great paintings that have portrayed the story. I wonder – does your museum have any paintings with this as the subject matter? I don’t know which museum it is, and of course that would make a difference. I was going to say I wouldn’t expect to find paintings dedicated to the slaughter of innocents in a modern art museum, but I’d better qualify that. The Biblical story might not show up, but there is “Guernica”.

      One thing I’ve realized after writing this is how little I know about the Middle Ages. It’s time for a little delving. From what I remember of the time, there’s plenty of reason for its citizens not to have been shocked by such songs or art.

      Happy New Year!

      Linda

  25. Well, I never quite ‘looked’ at it this way… the babe in the manger and what comes next. I have certainly been disturbed as of late concerning the children and youth. I listened to a podcast not long ago and a sixteen year old girl described what it was like for her to be a teenager. What an eye-opener! One of the fads, sadly, is the glorification of suicide. I sigh now… Your writing is sobering as another commenter had stated… and something to deeply keep in mind. Thank you, Linda, for sharing this perspective.

    Happy New Year!

    Blessings,
    Anna

    • Anna,

      It wasn’t so long ago I learned there are groups of girls who get together online to compete in weight loss. They’re not trying to drop ten pounds before a wedding or prom. These girls are celebrating anorexia and bulimia. Some weigh only 80 or 90 pounds and glorify what they are doing in the same way as some glorify suicide. There are so many in our society who seem to love death – and so much of our media encourages it.

      Well, we’re still alive and creating. I was glad to see Preston has a new post up, and I think the reorganizing you’ve done will help your focus (maybe in every sense of the word!) Whatever comes, I hope your year is filled with satisfaction. Happy New Year!

      Linda

  26. This is something I’ve thought of many times, but you’ve expressed it perfectly. It’s very easy to turn away and refuse to see, but once you see… You did this just right.

    • Bella,

      Once we see, we either respond, or not. I’m smiling, because your comment reminded me of something Annie Dillard said, truthful and funny: “We have not yet encountered any god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet.”

      I’ll bet you’ve flipped a June bug or two!

      Linda

  27. amiga
    you always have time for thoughtful comments that add so much to each post. I read a post last week about the study to see who would swerve and who would run over the turtle, and I was saddened. They mentioned that many people also swerve to run over a snake, and I have to plead ‘guilty’ in the past for doing that.. (it’s a moccasin! kill it!)

    We’re programmed early and spend the rest of our lives un-programming and evolving!

    Thank you so much for your long-distance friendship!

    feliz ano!
    z

    • Lisa,

      As I recall, the percentage of folks swerving-to-hit, although distressing, was fairly low. Five per cent, or something like that. If that’s right, there are as least as many people who will stop, park, go back and rescue injured turtles. They cross a lot of roads around here, spring and fall, and it can be quite a hazard – for everyone. There’s a woman in town who fixes up broken shells and such – a good many of us carry boxes and towels with us in the car so we can claim the unfortunate ones and get them to her.

      As for the snakes… well… that’s something different. I’m not afraid of snakes, but there are some species I don’t want anything to do with. Somewhere I’ve got a photo of a python stretched across a road in Liberia. The lorry drivers never would drive over one. For one thing, they were usually speed-bump-sized, but many Liberians also believed the things could curl their head and their tail around a vehicle and throw it into the bush. How about that?!

      Linda

  28. What beautiful meditative music. It’s fascinating to hear the modern version used in the ballet piece, too.

    Your words are most telling, Linda. As far as I’m concerned, there’s little use in noble thoughts at Christmas (or at any other time) if they merely stop there.

    • Andrew,

      I confess I never imagined a “techno” version of a medieval carol could be so enjoyable.

      And yes – spouting grand ideals while treating real people like dirt is more common than I like. But I suppose the answer is continuing to proclaim the ideas, not settling for life in the dirt. ;)

      Linda

  29. This is one of your most beautiful post, Linda. I feel so touched by this Medieval song, your thoughtful words, the images they brought to mind, all that remains to be done today and always to defend the powerless, so many thoughts after reading you. The Slaughter of Innocents, never to be forgotten, hardly a day passes without us being reminded of similar sad events. Will we ever learn from History ?
    Beautiful writing too. Much gratefulness to you.

    • isa,

      I’m so glad to know this touched you. It’s one of my favorite posts, both for the beauty of the music and dance and its relevance to our life today.

      Do we learn from history? I think some do – perhaps many do. How to convince our leaders to do their own learning is another question. Power is tempting, and the wealth that comes with power. I worry about this poor world often, but can only do what I can. Perhaps one day the balance will tip. Enough people will commit to decency and respect, care and compassion, that at last we will begin to move away from slaughter and death.

      Until then? We share with one another, hope and pray.

      Linda


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