The Kingfisher’s Carol

The Common Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis

When it comes to Christmas, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. My traditions may be idiosyncratic, but it just isn’t Christmas without pickled herring, a string of cranberries on the tree, bayberry candles, and Medieval carols. Pink and lavender trees, Mannheim Steamroller, and Elves on the Shelves will come and go, but I’m satisfied with my old ways, and probably always will be.

Still, there are times when something new emerges from the clutter and cacaphony of the season and attracts my attention. Last year, it was a snippet of song that stopped me in the yogurt aisle of a local grocery.  Light and rhythmic, it lilted through the store: a memorable melody with words sung in a language I couldn’t decipher.

With the advent of this new holiday season, the song came again to mind. A little searching revealed that, despite my fondness for ancient Christmas music, I’d missed knowing a song with an extraordinary history.

“Riu, Riu Chiu” is a part of the Cancionero de Upsala, also known as the Cancionero del Duque de Calabria or the Cancionero de Venecia, a volume of mostly anonymous Spanish music printed in Venice in 1556.

The only known original, held at the library of Uppsala University in Sweden. either was “highlighted by Rafael Mitjana y Gordon in 1904” or “edited in 1909 by Rafael Mitjana,” depending on which source you prefer. Despite uncertainties about the date, Mitjana’s spelling of Upsala is correct, since the name of the town wasn’t changed to “Uppsala” until the major Swedish spelling reform of 1906.

That a collection of Spanish songs, printed in Italy, should end up at a Swedish university appears to be one of those delightful accidents of history. The volume may have been acquired as war booty when the Swedish army plundered Prague in 1631, or 1648, though how the manuscript traveled to Prague, I haven’t a clue.

In any event, “Riu, Riu Chiu” is part of a collection titled:

Villancicos de diuersos Autores, a dos, y a tres, y a qvatro, y a cinco bozes, agora nvevamente corregidos. Ay mas ocho tonos de Canto llano, y ocho tonos de Canto de Organo para que puedam aprouechar los que, A cantar començaren. Venetiis, Apud Hieronymum Scotum, MDLVI. 

My very slight knowledge of Spanish seems to confirm this translation:

Villancicos from divers authors, for two, and for three, and for four, and for five voices, now newly corrected. There are also eight tones of plainchant, and eight tones of organum for the benefit of those that are still learning to sing. Venice, by Hieronymus (Girolamo) Scotto, 1556.

Two other songbooks, the Cancionero Musical del Palacio and the Cancionero de Medinaceli,  contain all the richness and variety of the Spanish Renaissance in their collections of compositions for instrument and voice. On the other hand, the Upsala collection has preserved fifty-four villancicos.

Over time, villancico has come to refer primarily to Christmas carols, but the songs, rooted in village life, were much like our folksongs. Sung in Castilian Spanish, Catalan,  and Galician-Portuguese, most of the villancicos were secular, but twelve in the Cancionero de Upsala were meant for Christmas, including “Riu, Riu Chiu,” attributed to Mateo Flecha the Elder.

Just as Swedish spelling reforms cause occasional difficulty for people dealing with early documents, changes in the Spanish language have left room for interpretation when it comes to the lyrics of “Riu, Riu Chiu.”

Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, authors of The New Oxford Book of Carols, tell us that:

“Riu, riu chiu” was a traditional call of Spanish shepherds when guarding their flocks in a riverside fold. Elsewhere , the catchy tune is found in a variant form with a secular shepherd-song, and it may derive from a genuine example.

Jula Karolaro, on his Yuletide Carols site reports that “Riu, riu chiu” is the call of a nightingale, or the call of a shepherd to his sheep. As he puts it:

The first line in Spanish is ambiguous, as to whether the riverbank is protecting a nightingale, or a shepherd is protecting his  flock at a riverbank. So in both translations, I equivocated a bit in that first line by vaguely referring to a “riverside guardian”.

Lisa Theriot, in notes accompanying her own translation, says:

“Riu, riu, chiu” is meant to be onomatopoeia for birdsong, though the type of bird is still under debate. Leading candidates are the nightingale, for the beauty of his song, and the kingfisher, because of the concept of guarding the riverbank.

After listening to recordings of the kingfisher, Lisa found herself favoring its role as the anonymous bird. Given not only the kingfisher’s call, but also its willingness to aggressively defend its territory, I’m willing myself to consider “Riu, Riu Chiu” the “Kingfisher’s carol.”

Whatever questions remain about the villancico, we can be grateful for the graceful translation of the lyrics provided by the San Francisco Bach Choir, and the happy transmission of the melody through the centuries.

Versions of the carol abound today. Everyone from Chanticleer to the Monkees have given it a whirl. But in this age of the over-produced, the simplicity of four voices and a timeless song is thrilling. It makes the season shine.

 Cancionero de Upsala/Cancionero del Duque de Calabria ~ Atríbuido a Mateo Flecha el Viejo

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73 thoughts on “The Kingfisher’s Carol

    1. I’m sure at some time it was sung in exactly that setting, Terry. Not only that, it’s a great walking song — the rhythm’s just right. Who knows? Maybe a few shepherds sang it while they were out looking for a lost sheep.– or trying to figure out where the wolves were!

  1. For all the ingenious musical instruments we’ve created as a species, we’ve never come up with a more perfect musical instrument than the human voice. Voices singing together in harmony is the most perfect of the musical forms, IMO. I can imagine a shepherd might make a wooden flute to while away time spent with the sheep, and the limited range of the song suggests the tune could have been composed on a flute with its single-octave range — or even on a bagpipe, which in various forms was known all over Europe and the middle east from prehistoric times. (And what is a bagpipe after all but a way to play a sustained melody line on a flute or recorder like instrument which would not have to interrupt the flow of the melody by the need to stop and take a breath?). Flutes, and bagpipes, are portable instruments, very suited to the life of a shepherd. But the most portable instrument? The one we always have with us? The voice. There is a tradition of singing shepherds that goes back to David, for “psalms” are nothing but special songs.

    I have a strange fascination and love of the Latin liturgy, which is perhaps odd in someone raised Presbyterian, although we sang Palestrina ( ) in Latin in Varsity choir in high school (and I loved it dearly). My perennial favorites are these: and

    Here’s one of my new favorites: “Lux Aurumque” by Eric Whitacre. The lyric is a short poem, “Light and Gold”, by Edward Esch (born 1970) “Light, warm and heavy as pure gold, and the angels sing softly to the new born baby” Whitachre had the words translated into Latin and set them to music: I heard him interviewed on NPR about it just the other day and he said his purpose in having the words translated to Latin was because Latin does not depend on word order to convey meaning as English does. Thus, it “sets the music free” from the necessity of phrasing to preserve meaning that he felt would have constrained it had the words stayed in English.

    Treat yourself to a wander through the Youtube videos that come up when you search on “Eric Whitacre.” “Water Night” and “Sleep” are two of my most favorite. Also check out his “virtual choir” concept and recording. Mind blowing.

    1. I enjoy Whitacre too, WOL. Have you heard his original version of “Sleep”? In the beginning, it was a setting of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The Frost estate wasn’t happy, and it had to be re-written. You can still find a copy of the original here, and the cautionary tale here, from Whitacre’s site.

      Not only the shepherds carried flutes or pipes, of course. I have my great-great-grandfather’s fife, which my grandfather told me gr-great carried with him during his Civil War service. If that’s true, I should listen a little more closely while I’m roaming the Texas coast. Great-great served from Brownsville to Matagorda to Galveston, and mustered out in Liberty. He may have sent his songs into the ether practically in my back yard.

      All of the services available to us now are so wonderful. I have a Palestrina channel in my Pandora account. i’ll laugh as much as anyone when “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” rolls around each year, but it just doesn’t have the staying power. Another favorite is Arvo Pärt. His “Silentium” is wonderful.

      1. YouTube is so dependable. I’ve yet to go searching for something I couldn’t find. I suppose it could happen some day, but if they have the Monkees singing “Riu, Riu Chiu,” it really seems like there aren’t many limits. Thanks for adding it.

    1. Well, look at that. Jim’s added a link for you, Susan. I remember a couple of their songs, and liked “Last Train to Clarksville” well enough at the time. But I didn’t know until this morning they had their own television show.

      I’m glad you enjoyed “Riu, Riu Chiu.” I’m still amazed it made a grocery store playlist.

      1. That was really sweet! I enjoyed it so much, and I think I’ll watch the whole episode. They were actually very talented musicians, even though the network didn’t take them seriously. “Last Train to Clarksville” was a Vietnam protest song. I don’t know if you knew that. I always liked the ones featuring Mickey. He was my favorite. :)

        1. I didn’t have a clue about “Last Train…” I’ll have to take a look at the lyrics. Of course, I didn’t even know one of the group was named Mickey until just this minute. I wouldn’t even have known they recorded “Riu, Riu Chiu” had I not seen a mention of it in a comment attached to a YouTube video. I’m glad I added them to the post!

    1. Oh, Knipsa! I enjoyed it very much. In fact, I had to listen and watch twice before I even could take time to thank you for introducing me to his work. I hadn’t heard of him. It was fascinating to read about his life in the article, and I’m looking forward to exploring more of his music.

      Thank you so much for adding him here. For me, this is one of the best parts of blogging — having the opportunity to learn about things I might not otherwise know.


      1. I’m glad you like it and I’m glad I brought some joy into your day :)
        I also learn quite a bit by blogging. And I get to see alot more of the world than I would normally.
        This is pretty funny too. You learn some italian words, each verse gets another word added and it gets longer and longer.
        Wishing you a nice sunday :)
        PS: I’ll have some fine music for you in 2.5 hours on my blog :)

        1. That’s just great, Knipsa. I laughed to see Homer Simpson, of course, and I think the image used just after him might be a cartoon version of the famous photos of Marilyn Monroe. I have an Italian friend who may not know about Branduardi, and I’ll pass all this on to her.

    1. Life’s full of surprises for us all, Hippie. Somehow, I think the kingfisher would be just fine with it. If he wasn’t, we’d know it, since they’re not shy about rattling off their complaints.

      I hope you have no complaints at all, and that your holiday season is delightful. Merry Christmas to you!

    1. You’re welcome, Rosemary. You might also enjoy this version by the Boston Camarata. I spend a good bit of time with them at this time of year, and will be listening to them while I make a batch of your soft sugar cookies. Merry Christmas!

  2. (Elf on a shelf….perfectly willing to toss those to Molly as chew toys. So annoying.)

    Guess the little crested bird with the white collar on I saw today wasn’t a kingfish…(you know my bird categorizing skills are marginal). With the chilling wind, assorted birds were sheltering under the shoulder of the island this morning along with our usual large grey heron. A flock of 5-6 grebes got startled by us – they took wing, and then as if realizing it was still cold, misty and miserable, they got up just high enough above the water so that their little feet “ran” across the water surface before settling back down – amazing. Seriously looked like they flapped just enough lift for forward motion as they walked on water. Molly was fascinated as usual with bird sightings and wanted to stay, but though it better to let the feathered guys feel safe huddling in shelter from wind and weather.

    Hope you got to see some lights – we actually got out that night and walked the streets. Some blocks were really sparkling. I almost got run over only once as we walk in the street to keep Molly from stopping to smell every grass leaf.

    I loved this song/video. What a strange path this tune has traveled. Music like this seems so much more Christmasy. Radio station seems to only have 4-5 songs they play and you can rock around the tree just so many times. Dug out some CD’s like the Beach Boys’ Christmas album. I collected lot of Christmas CDs and drove my family nuts with them,(difficult job, but someone has to do it.)

    But kinda draggin’ my feet with Christmas this year -don’t know if it’s all the weather’s fault. But this little song really perked me up. THANKS and merry merry on to jingle.

    1. Actually, Phil, you probably did see a kingfisher. I’ve been seeing them occasionally, though I usually don’t notice them unless they’re making a racket or sitting on a power line.

      The one up above is the one native to Spain — the one that the song creators would have seen. And the link farther down to the kingfisher call is from that same bird. We have the belted kingfisher, “Megaceryle alcyon.” There’s a photo included in this article from A&M . I suspect you’ll recognize it as “your” kingfisher.

      There were some wonderful Christmas songs in the past. The Clear Lake Symphony included “Sleigh Ride” this year, with plenty of bells. Now that I think of it, most of my favorites from that time include bells: “Silver Bells,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” and so on. Of course, the sound of real sleigh bells is one of my favorite seasonal memories, so that probably plays in.

      We never did get out to see the lights. One thing led to another, and pretty soon we’d made the decision that good wine and good conversation were good enough. Maybe there will be a jaunt this weekend. Have you ever gone down to Dickinson to see their display at the park? A friend went this year and said it was lovely.

      1. That’s the bird. He looked pretty sharp and dressed to party.

        Sorry to have missed the Clear Lake Symphony. Nothing’s as nice as real sleigh bells jingling along.
        We did go to Dickinson last year. I had high hopes for the Galveston Ice carvings, but it seems they went for kiddieland and Sponge Bob instead of the elegant sculptures and Ice castles they have carved in other places. You have to wonder what these well known ice artist thought when told the theme.

        There are quite a few lighted streets along here – one huge Snowman already blown out – but you’d never miss it in that yard: so much other stuff going on there. The inflatable designer really must tweak the Rudolf dressed in hunting vest in a deer stand holding a rifle – takes a long time to figure out what it is. Color choice and design is lacking….Of course the most simple concept is the 3 new garden hoes dressed in big red velvet bows planted vertically in a line….needs a spotlight at night, though.

        I think we may be the only one with the old fashion light strings. (and we’d better go buy any replacement bulbs we can find before they disappear). Somehow those lights go along with your song? Off to redirect a very bored dog so tired of being inside she’s trying to high five the cat…who is so not pleased with the idea.

        1. Here. Sing a chorus of this to the dog, and while she’s listening, you can go over to Tandi’s and see how the folks up in Yellowknife do up ice carving the way it’s supposed to be done. The castle is fabulous.

          Truth be told, I’m in the mood for some good snow. If it’s going to be cold and gray, it might as well snow. Have you ever seen photos of Houston in the blizzard of 1895? This is a photo I happened to have in my files. There were 22″ in Houston, and 24″ in Rayne, Louisiana.

          It’s snowed 34 times here since 1895. I think we’re due.

          1. the photo link didn’t work, but there is a pretty famous pix of when Galveston Bay froze over in that time period – showed ladies in long skirts walking and ice skating. I’ve seen a foot of snow in Palacios one winter in early 70’s. If it’s gonna snow, I’d like warning to wrap a couple of palms – the snow on them looked nice the first year we were here, but we lost a few then. Ice carvers did some beautiful exhibits last year in ski country,CO – Suzie’s Wild Ride had pix of them…I had such hope for Galveston

  3. Gee, as many Christmas songs as I’ve sung over the years, I’ve never heard this one! Thanks for educating me, Linda.

    You’re right in so many ways — I’m not a big fan of Elf-on-a-Shelf (and I don’t imagine Domer would have been either!). And don’t even think about trying to change up my traditional turkey feast! Once, visiting the now-ex-in-laws, they served up bread dressing (instead of our customary Southern cornbread dressing), and I nearly fell out of my chair!

    Merry Christmas to you, and thanks for being my online friend — I can always count on you to keep encouraging me to stretch and grow!

    1. So there are two of us who found a new song.. It’s always interesting to ponder what catches our attention, and when. We hear or see something time after time, and never notice it until, one day, something changes. In any event, I’m glad I’ve found the song, and glad you enjoyed it.

      I laughed at your dressing tale. When I first came to Texas and met cornbread dressing rather than bread dressing for the first time, I nearly fell out of my chair. Then, there was the day I met oyster dressing. I like it now, but only as an addition to other dressings: not a replacement.

      Merry Christmas to you, Debbie. Enjoy your days with Domer, and may all your chores be easy ones!

  4. Thank you for this Linda. I have it in my memory, but I don’t know if it was by the Monkees. This is a wonderful rendition anyway.

    I agree with your traditional Christmas celebration. Ours this year is taking the form of a traditional Danish celebration, though I’m eliminating the pickled herring. There will be lots of Frikadeller and Pebber Nodder though.

    Merry Christmas Linda, and thank you for anothr year of wonderful stories.

    1. It’s amazing to see how many versions of “Riu, Riu Chiu” exist. Some of the arrangments are beautiful, but it’s one of those songs that is charming even when sung by a grade school choir or a teenager with a guitar.

      I’ve never heard of Pebber Nodder. After finding the recipe and instructions (on YouTube, of course!) it seems they’re much like the German Pfeffernusse or the Swedish Pepparkakor, which either do or don’t include pepper, depending on the cook’s preference.

      The must-haves here are Sprits,still made with the cookie press my mother was given as a young bride, the little round things with pecans, powdered sugar and a hundred names (like Mexican wedding cakes) and Limpa bread. with hints of orange, fennel, caraway, and anise. And after years of searching, I finally found a recipe for potato sausage (Potatis Korv). A man in Odebolt, Iowa, who’s been making the stuff for 40 years and selling it locally, finally decided to make his recipe public. Santa came early this year!

      A Merry Christmas to you and Dr. Advice, Kayti. May peace and joy increase.

  5. I, too, am a fan of the Kingfisher, Linda. It is certainly a unique bird with it’s call, flight pattern, and dips into the water. You always know when a Kingfisher is around. So I am going to go with your interpretation. –Curt

    1. Curt, I wasn’t so sure, until I listened to the call and song of the Spanish kingfisher. It’s different from the belted kingfisher’s that we have, and I can understand how it could have been transformed into “riu, riu, chiu.”

      Of course, written transcriptions of bird songs have a lot of room for interpretation. Thank goodness for the help offered by audio files on sites like Cornell.. It’s much easier to identify birds when you’ve heard their calls, than when you’re trying to figure out what “chick-chick-chirree-chirr” sounds like in real life!

      1. Yes, Linda. I’ve always been amused by oral interpretations of bird sounds. Once you have heard the bird it makes sense. Until then… :) I would have gone with the Kingfisher, regardless— just because I like the bird. What kind of scientist am I. (laughing) —Curt

  6. Thanks for intro me to this piece of traditional music. I like the old hymns too, but don’t mind all these carols from the stores, at least they are allowed. Just a few years ago there was a campaign trying to ban ‘religious’ music in public area. I’m talking about Canada here, not N. Korea.

    Anyway, love that photo of the Kingfisher. Did you take that? I tried to once and could only get very blurry and dark images.

    1. Arti, your comment reminded me of Marketa Hancova’s recounting of her experience in Wenceslas Square in Prague:

      “There are many events I happily experience and one of the episodes sticks clearly in my mind. We are walking with my friends in the Wenceslas Square and we notice a big crowd in front of a record shop. We come closer and see a small cassette player sitting on a stool and playing a Christmas carol.

      We are so happy to hear – for the first time in our life – the Christmas carol being played publicly. We are staying for the longest time and together with others listening, singing and enjoying a sliver of already gained freedom.”

      I titled that post “Reclaiming the Freedom to Sing” — and it’s a freedom that needs to be reclaimed, again and again, in a multitude of ways and in a multitude of circumstances.

      Since I wanted to use a photo of the Spanish kingfisher, I had to resort to Wiki. Our belted kingfisher is quite different – far less color. You can see a photo and hear recordings of his calls here. I’ve only seen a couple so far this year. They’re much more common for us in winter.

  7. What a wonderful Christmas gift of song (and of course the background information you share — love that about your posts) :D Thank you. Now, it will replay in my mind over and over! Merry Christmas to you and yours with a joyous New Year to follow.

    1. This one is easy to keep in mind. Not only that, I can imagine your lovely trees from today swaying in rhythm with it, happily humming along.

      Merry Christmas, Becca, to you and your whole family. You’ve given and received uncounted gifts in the past years. May this Christmas and New Year be equally full.

  8. I can imagine it sung in a lonely shepherd setting, too. Beautiful. Linda. If I don’t ‘see’ you over the next couple of days, have a wonderful Christmas. I’m sure I’ll see you before New Year’s.

    1. I might be wrong, Bella, but I have a feeling the song could be equally good in the middle of the night in an East Coast living room — just the right accompaniment for searching for extra batteries or trying to figure out last-minute assembly instructions that appear to be written in Urdu.

      But that wouldn’t be you. You’re far too organized, right? Right! Anyone who can be running the country clipping berries for mailbox decoration at this point is a woman to be admired. Merry Christmas to you and H, and the rest of the crew. If you’re getting more oysters and crab, I’m going to be jealous.

  9. Medieval, yes. English. And I love to see (and eat) some soft Mediterranean colors, and foods, this time of year, too.

    Christmas week begins. Merry Christmas.

    1. I still laugh when I see people here lighting up their palms with tropical pastels. It’s pretty, and entirely appropriate, but so different from the red-green-white color scheme that meant Christmas when I was a kid.

      Is today the Last Day? I’ll have to come peek. It seems strange to me that the farm wouldn’t be open until late on Christmas Eve, but maybe I’m just used to urban lots that try to move all their inventory.

      In any event, I’ll be checking in to see what’s what over in your world. Give Jasper a Christmas scritch for me.

  10. As one without a lifetime tradition of Christmas, I can’t really relate to the memories etc. But I did enjoy the performance of “Riu, Riu Chiu”. I don’t mind the modern over produced music, but one of my favorite groups is the Anonymous Four whom, if you are not familiar, I am sure you would enjoy.

    1. I enjoyed them very much, Steve. I hadn’t heard of the group, but I spent a little time listening to other recordings, and liked those, too. I was interested to see they’ve sung their way through a variety of works, including this version of “Wayfaring Stranger,” where the vocalist reminded me of Iris Dement, of all people.

      The acoustics in the church are fabulous. I once attended an organ concert there. When I was working in Liberia, the Lutheran Church offices were in the Phelps-Morgan Mansion, at 231 Madison Avenue, next to the Morgan Library. I had several occasions to go there on business, and one of my friends worked there. So, I often roamed the surrounding area, taking advantage of the opporunity to see what I could see, including the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin.

      What I didn’t know at the time is that the Lutheran Church and New York preservationists got into it over the mansion. The Lutherans wanted to tear it down and build a nice, boxy office tower. Good grief. Anyway, the story of all that’s in the linked article, and the mansion survived. It’s part of the Morgan Library and Museum, now.

  11. You did a very nice translation of the villancico title for the villancicos housed in the Swedish university.

    You and your readers have provided so many fascinating links that I want to click on, read and listen to. That would be me clicking on to your site daily, folding them into my day to take a read or listen, pausing to rest between chores as the countdown to Christmas guests arriving is on and there is much to be done.

    Having been raised between the ages of 10 and 19 in Shreveport, La, I want to ask Rick what he remembers about the kingfisher as he and his dad spent much time outdoors. Interesting to think of a kingfisher in Spain or his call the subject of a Spanish carol.

    1. Oh my, Georgette. The operative word in my aside about the translation of the title is “confirm.” I didn’t translate it myself. I only used my passing familiarity with Spanish to confirm that, yes, that is indeed what the title says.

      I laughed at Lisa Theriot’s comments in the linked article about the importance of song translation. She said, “Personally, I would never sing a song if I didn’t know what I was actually saying. You could turn out to be reciting somebody’s recipe for lutefisk or inviting the goatherds over for breakfast.” I’ve learned not to accept online translations at face value. I found one fellow translating “Riu, riu chiu” as “River, river crossing.” He needs to live in Texas, where the Rio Frio and Rio Grande would help him sort that out.

      One of the things I’ve learned from Steve Schwartzman is the importance of scientific names. Just as a sunflower can be one of several species, a kingfisher has cousins. We share the belted kingfisher with Louisiana, but also have the ringed kingfisher in the Rio Grande valley. Both differ from the one(s?) found in Spain.

      The video of the Anonymous Four reminded me of the Villa de Matel here in Houston. Have you attended a concert there? The Houston Chamber Choir presents concerts there because of the fabulous acoustics. I think it’s one of the best musical experiences in the city.

  12. I clicked “Post Comment” without even wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thank you for the wonderful reads, conversation, fun and inspiration in 2014.

    One more thought. I saw a gift bag in Walmart, red letters on a lime green bag, that said “Shake the Merry.” At first I just couldn’t get it, and then the more I thought of it…yes, I did. A Spanish kingfisher carol in Sweden is about as odd as my Dutch grandmother in Mexico and maternal grandmother in Alaska. Life happens merrily and it’s not so odd after all. Merry Christmas.

    1. We have had a fine year, haven’t we? I still can’t quite get it through my head that Christmas is here and 2015 is coming, but so it is. At least this year you won’t have to go through the process of moving.

      It amazes me to think of the ways people and cultures moved and intermingled so many years ago.We pride ourselves on our communication and transportation systems, but my own great-great-grandfather was panning for gold in Colorado when he heard about the Civil War, and my schoolmarm great-aunt landed on a pineapple plantation in Hawaii. Lots of movement, lots of dreams.

      By the way — I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that one inviolable tradition for my Christmas is an order from Jaarsma Bakery in Pella, Iowa. No matter how deep the snow, how busy the schedule, we always found a way to make the trip to that little Dutch town for holiday treats.

      Merry Christmas to you and yours – your first in your new home!

  13. “Riu, Riu Chiu” sounds quite interesting. While I’m not a fan of medieval music some of it touches a chord with me. :-)

    I suppose we are all set in our ways of how we celebrate Christmas but yours sounds delightful. Bayberry candles are a favorite of mine. I’m fond of the old Christian Christmas carols.

    Sorry to be so late to comment on your last two posts.

    1. There’s no such thing as “late” around here, Yvonne. I keep comments open on all my posts, and sometimes get comments two or three years down the road..

      I love bayberry. We always had fresh greens in Iowa – fir and spruce, as I recall. Maybe pine, too. But bayberry was “the” fragrance of the season. The real ones are hard to find now, and when I do, I usually limit myself, because they’re expensive. But the real scent is so much better than anything produced in a laboratory.

      We used to go caroling a good bit. No one wanted to hear “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” I suppose it hadn’t even been written back then. But everyone liked the old songs — partly because they could sing along. That’s one thing I liked about “Riu, Riu Chiu.” The words are simple enough that even I can make my way around them. Maybe by the time the season is over, I’ll have it memorized. I like it well enough to try.

      And here we are, nearly at 2015. I hope it’s a good year for you, with no complications.


  14. What a wonderful piece of music, it’s quite haunting and wonderful to think of it as the kingfisher’s carol. Kingfishers are (round here) very elusive …

    As to the Monkees, I was a fan of their tv show before I realised they were real musicians.


    1. It is haunting, isn’t it, Juliet? I can as easily hear it echoing across Scottish hills — any hills, for all that.

      In my area, the kingfishers aren’t resident. They’re here over the winter — from late autumn until perhaps March. They’re one of birds I always hear before I see them. Another is the osprey. It’s thrilling to hear their call, and know that they’re back.

      The Monkees seem to be a bit of a generational litmus test. I knew their music, but didn’t have a clue about their tv program until I wrote this post.

      I had a look at your Christmas fungi photos — they’re wonderful. I never knew how varied and beautiful they could be.


  15. I don’t know why I’m not getting an e-mail when you post a new article. Maybe I clicked a link I shouldn’t have. Anyway, I saw your post just a while ago…after Christmas. Anyway, your post reminded me of my youth when we sang Spanish “villancicos” on Christmas Eve in a banana town called Changuinola.

    There are many popular Spanish villancicos which are played every Christmas on our radio stations. Some of them are: El Tamborilero, Los Peces en el Río, Mi Burrito Sabanero, Campana Sobre Campana and Cascabel.

    My favorite one is El Tamborilero. It always brings back the kid inside of this old armour.

    Thank you for bringing back pleasant memories of villancicos in Changuinola.



    1. Oh, that silly WordPress. I’ve had a few instances of not getting emails, too. I’ve found when that happens, it usually fixes things if I go in and resubscribe.

      I’ve been searching out your songs on YouTube. I certainly know “Cascabel”! I really like the music of “Mi Burrito Sabanero,” but the most interesting one is “Los Peces en el Rio.” I was able to get the basic meaning of that one from Google translate, but I don’t think it’s a graceful translation. I imagine songs and poetry are far more difficult to translate. What’s so delightful is that, before Christmas, I heard one of the other workers on the dock singing “Campana Sobre Campana.” I’ll have to tell him I know what it is.

      I do love the music of Christmas. The ones that really bring back the memories for me are “Silver Bells” (the version with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney) and “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful.” Well, and “Joy to the World.” The only one I remember disliking as a child was “Away in a Manger.” It just wasn’t any fun to sing.

      I’ve learned so much, writing this post. I’m glad it brought back some pleasant memories for you.


      1. Since there was a large population of Americans in Changuinola, I’m well familiar with the Christmas carols you mentioned. One of my favorites was “White Christmas” sang by Bing Crosby.

        We had a choir at school under the direction of Mrs. Smith. We sang “Away in the Manger” every single year I was there.

        Roger that. I also love Christmas music. Now it’s gone. Will have to wait next year.



    1. I think I just figured out where our word “tambourine” came from — at least, I know what one of its cousins is. I didn’t know the song by the title, but of course it took only a few notes to recognize it. I like it, too.

  16. I have long heard and loved this carol but I never heard its background. As you mentioned in your other post, I, too, am fond of the traditional. And part of that includes the traditional and more ancient carols — well, maybe ancient is a stretch, but certainly those sun centuries before, those that have classical roots (or at least now are heard on classical music stations, though their roots may be far more humble.)

    So, thank you for sharing this, for telling this story. It adds so very much to the picture!

    1. I’m not surprised you know this one, Jeanie. The only question is, why didn’t you tell me about it years ago, so I could have been enjoying it all this time!?

      I was so tickled when I received a gift from an English friend that included some photography of English wildlife. The very first photo was of a kingfisher, the same species shown above. In fact, it could have been the same bird, they’re so similar. Ours isn’t nearly so colorful, of course, nor so musical. I think my British friend would say that’s just the difference between the Brits and the Americans — and then we’d both laugh.

      What I love best about this one is how it “escapes” Christmas. It can be listened to with as much enjoyment in July as in December. The best ones really are seasonless, aren’t they?

  17. What fun to learn of this carol and its circuitous path. I agree with the above comment that the best music is pan-seasonal. I find myself humming Easter tunes at the oddest times, and Lenten hymns pop up when i need them. These are so much different from those ditties that seem to get stuck in your brain for a time, yet not for long and are never evoked by need. Great music comes to us at such times, and for that I am grateful – that they do, and that I have been exposed to such music.

    1. Pan-seasonal is better than seasonless, Allen. You’ve chosen the better word.

      And you’re right that the ditties, the so-called “pop songs”, are more decoration than nourishment. I’m as fond of “Silver Bells” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” as the next person, but I wouldn’t be listening to them in July.

      Another I dearly love is the Renaissance carol, “Down in Yon Forest.” For a couple of years, there were only a few recordings on YouTube, and most weren’t satisfactory, at least in my opinion. Joan Baez’s version is too fast, others too slow. But this one comes as close to what I heard in England as any.

    1. One of the things I enjoy about the old carols, Otto, is their grounding in a time when our sacred/secular distinction hadn’t yet formed, or at least hadn’t become so rigid. Gabriel García Márquez wasn’t necessarily the first to provide a little magical realism!

      It’s a wonderful song, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  18. It was either late summer or early autumn of 2018, when I heard a bird outside my window, in pre-dawn darkness, give a slowed-down call (as I’ve heard happens post-mating season), that was a very clear, “Ree-oo, ree-oo, chyu” – also ending in what sounded like “chiri.” Didn’t have the presence of mind to record it, and in 2019 drastically increased traffic at nearly all hours drove our sleep-deprived birds out of the back yard; so I haven’t heard it since (& we’re not near a river).

    I’ve theorized it was a thrush, which is what the so-called “American Robin” actually is. Have gone on-line, but nothing so far out of the post-mating bird calls/songs I’ve looked up. Maybe shepherds in Spain [Basque, I read] heard a migratory thrush or some bird give a similar call, and adopted it. Not sure whether I’m prepared to say, or not, that some intelligent bird species could have mimicked the shepherds’ call to their own young, who passed it on generation to generation (Has or could such a thing happen?).

    1. My apologies for this late reply — when you stopped by, I was packing for a move, and even with the move itself accomplished, the unpacking and settling has been a bit of a chore, as well as a distraction.

      A thrush makes sense, although it obviously would be a different species from our American Robin. My pleasure in that bird’s song was established in childhood — it was the robin’s song that wakened me in the morning, and sent me to sleep at night.

      As for birds mimicking a shepherd’s call, I have no doubt such a thing could happen. I once lived in a place where mockingbirds and mallards both were common, and one mockingbird famously picked up the mallard’s quack. It took us a while to figure out what a mallard was doing in the trees, but once we figured it out, it occasioned great hilarity.

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