The Messenger

 

Stiff,
cautious
on her branch,
she peers about.
Sweetly curious,
half-haloed, tattered, and
holding fast a captive star,
she heralds this angelic truth
laid in the heart of our broken world.
Every Thing counts. Every One counts. Always.
Blessèd
Christmas
To All

 

Comments always are welcome.

Songs of the Season ~ The ‘O’ Antiphons

Illuminated “O”

One of the most familiar and beloved Advent hymns, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” has its roots in Christian monastic life of the 8th and 9th centuries. In the seven days before Christmas Eve, a series of special antiphons — short phrases surrounding a liturgical psalm or canticle — would be sung. During that week, the antiphons were meant to point toward the Feast of the Incarnation, and to heighten anticipation of the celebration through references drawn from both Old and New Testaments.

Because their introductory phrases refer to various titles given to the coming Messiah, those last antiphons of Advent became known as the ‘O Antiphons.’

O Sapentia (O Wisdom)
O Adonai (O Lord)
O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
O Clavis David (O Key of David)
O Oriens (O Dayspring)
O Rex Genitium (O King of the Nations)
O Emmanuel (God With Us)

The last antiphon, ‘O Emmanuel,’ traditionally was sung on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve. Perhaps as early as the 12th century, it was given a Latin metrical form and transformed into a hymn. When John Mason Neale (1818-1866), the architect of the Oxford Movement and a translator of early Greek and Latin hymns, discovered it in the appendix of an early 18th-century manuscript, “Psalterium Cationum Catholicorum,”  he included it in his collection of Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (1851) and it soon made its way into congregational settings.

Over the years, the popularity of the hymn never has waned. Stirring in a cathedral worship setting, it can be equally appealing when performed instrumentally. Now and then, an artist puts a personal stamp on the hymn in a way that is both faithful to the original and utterly new. Rearranging lyrics and simplifying their presentation, Enya has made a centuries old antiphon something wholly unexpected: both magical and memorable.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Songs of the Season ~ O, Tumbleweed!

If the words ‘toolpusher’, ‘roughneck,’ ‘monkeyboard,’ or ‘mud man’ aren’t familiar, you might not recognize the aging bit of oil field equipment in the photo as a Christmas tree.  Obviously, it has nothing to do with the fragrant pines and firs we bring into our homes for the holiday, but the array of valves, spools, and fittings designed to control the flow of fluids into or out of a well apparently reminded oil and gas field workers of old-fashioned, decorated Christmas trees: so much so that the name took hold, and still is used today.

Whether Charles Follen would have appreciated a connection between the improbable oilfield trees and the more traditional ‘tannenbaum’ he introduced to New England is impossible to say, but I suspect he would have been intrigued.

Raised in Germany, Follen immigrated to America in 1824, becoming Harvard’s first German-language instructor in 1825. By 1832, living in Cambridge with his wife and two-year-old son, he decided to recreate the German Christmas customs of his childhood and youth. In the woods near his home, he cut a small fir, decorated its branches with dolls and candy-filled cornucopias, and illuminated it with candles.

Harriet Martineau, an English journalist visiting Boston at the time, described the unveiling of the tree at the Follens’ Christmas party:

The tree was the top of a young fir, planted in a tub which was ornamented with moss. Smart dolls and other whimsies glittered on the evergreen and there was not a twig which had not something sparkling upon it…
I mounted the steps behind the tree to see the effect of opening the doors. It was delightful. The children poured in, but in a moment every voice was hushed. Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested. Nobody spoke, only Charley leaped for joy….
It really looked beautiful; the room seemed in a blaze, and the ornaments were so well hung on that no accident happened, except that one doll’s petticoat caught fire. There was a sponge tied to the end of a stick to put out any supernumerary blaze, and no harm ensued.
I have little doubt that the Christmas tree will become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England.

Over time, trees like the one introduced by Follen changed. Candles gave way to electric lights, imported glass baubles replaced paper chains, and peppermint canes supplanted candy-filled cornucopias. Still, the pine, the fir, and the spruce remained the Christmas trees of choice: good trees being defined by their conical shape, even branches, and straight trunks.

Finding such a perfect tree was possible in New England. In Texas, it was more difficult, particularly in the days before Christmas tree farms and modern transportation.

The native Ashe juniper, also known as Texas cedar or mountain cedar, became a more-than-adequate substitute for early settlers. Even today, hill country families harvest nicely-shaped Christmas cedars from their land, keeping with long Texas tradition.

A decorated Ashe juniper at Lyndon B. Johnson’s boyhood home

Farther west and south, even cedar grows sparse. Ever-inventive, a few lucky Texans harvest the stalk of the agave, or century plant, for drying and decoration. Impressive in its natural state, the plant’s stalk can grow to as much as thirty feet, making it especially appropriate for large spaces.

Agave at Sunset ~ Goliad, Texas
Decorated agave at Mission Espíritu Santo, Goliad, Texas

If there isn’t an agave handy and cedars are in short supply, Texans in the Panhandle always can turn to the tumbleweed. They’re often lighted and hung from trees as yard ornaments, and more than a few rotund ‘snowmen’ have made use of the weeds, but the best stories revolve around tumbleweed Christmas trees.

Red Steagall, well-known cowboy poet and raconteur, tells one of the best tumbleweed holiday stories, and he tells it in song. As it turns out, there are Christmas trees in Notrees, Texas, and not all of them are sitting in the oil patch.

It was a rough year for roughnecks’ children,
hard times and harder livin’,
we moved when the rent come due,
and it come due once a week.
That year in late December
found us in an old house trailer,
west of Odessa, near a town they call Notrees.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Notrees, Texas
Too poor to pay attention,
Daddy lived on good intentions;
he intended Christmas to be just what we believed.
Drove to town in the company pickup,
when he didn’t have a sawbuck
for the price of a Christmas tree —
he brought back a tumbleweed.
The tumbleweed I captured outside Dodge City, Kansas
Christmas eve in Notrees, Texas,
wind blowin’ through the cactus,
Santy Claus was a rich kid’s saint
and a poor kid’s dream.
I’d trade every fancy present
I ever had, or ever will get,
for the night of the tumbleweed Christmas tree.
Daddy set it on the dinette table,
Mama made a newsprint angel,
ornaments of tinfoil scraps and buttons on a string.
Took us all night to decorate it,
When we got done I’ll have to say that
it was the prettiest tumbleweed that I’d ever seen.
O, Tumbleweed
Wind rocked the trailer like a cradle,
While we sang our Christmas carols
settin’ on a sofa on the duct-tape Naugahyde.
Daddy looked proud as a big city banker,
Mama tried hard to be thankful
Lookin’ at that tumbleweed,
she laughed until she cried.
Christmas eve in Notrees, Texas,
Wind blowin’ through the cactus,
Santy Claus was a rich kid’s saint
and a poor kid’s dream.
I’d trade every fancy present
I ever had or ever will get
for the night of the tumbleweed Christmas tree.
I was just six, goin’ on seven
being poor is an education;
That night I learned a lot
about just what Christmas means.
It means love and it means lovin’,
It means money don’t mean nothin’,
and it means a tumbleweed can make a Christmas tree.
Christmas eve in Notrees, Texas,
Wind blowin’ through the cactus,
Santy Claus was a rich kid’s saint
and a poor kid’s dream.
I’d trade every fancy present
I ever had or ever will get
for the night of the tumbleweed Christmas tree.

And so it is. ‘Makin’ do’ isn’t the worst thing in the world, and sometimes it’s the best. After all — it’s not the tree that counts, but the song it evokes.

Comments always are welcome.

Songs of the Season ~ Sankta Lucia

The name of the young woman in this contemporary icon — Saint Lucy –is derived from the Latin word for light (lux), a fact which helps to explain how she became embedded into cultural traditions and Christmas celebrations from Italy to Sweden and beyond.

Born in Syracuse, Sicily in 283 AD, Lucy was martyred at the age of twenty after refusing to marry a pagan nobleman. According to legend, she was sentenced to a life of prostitution, but when guards arrived to take her away, she remained frozen in place and impossible to move. More torture took place before her death, including the removal of her eyes; some icons show her holding those eyes on a golden platter.

One of the earliest Christian martyrs to achieve popularity, Lucy became the patron saint of her city of birth, but her fame spread far beyond Syracuse. In Naples, along the waterfront district known as Borgo Santa Lucia, Neapolitan gondoliers sang a traditional song associated with her as they plied their boats, or barcas, across the water.

In 1849, Teodoro Cottrau (1827-1879) translated that song, “Santa Lucia,” from Neapolitan into Italian, publishing it as a barcarola, or boat song, and making it the first Neapolitan song to be given Italian lyrics.

A celebration of the Borgo Santa Lucia, the song portrays a gondolier inviting his customers to take a turn in his little boat, his barchetta, while they enjoy the beauty of an evening on the sea. Enrico Caruso’s recording of the song may be one of the most well-known, but this performance by Beniamino Gigli seemed lighter and more pleasing to me.

Sul mare luccia l’astro d’argento,
Placida è l’onda, prospero è il vento
Venite all’agile barchetta mia…
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Con questo zeffiro, così soave
Oh! Com’è bello star su la nave!
Su passaggieri, venite via!
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
O dolce Napoli, o suol beato,
Ove sorridere volle il creato
Tu sei l’impero dell’armonia!
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Upon this brilliant sea, a star of silver,
Across the gentle waves, the wind is sweeping.
Upon this brilliant sea, a star of silver,
Across the gentle waves, the wind is sweeping.
Come help my little boat sail swiftly to the shore,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Come help my little boat sail swiftly to the shore,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Full sail with breezes fair, so gentle are they,
Oh, how this ship can feel, so fine beneath me,
Full sail with breezes fair, so gentle are they,
Oh, how this ship can feel, so fine beneath me,
All passengers aboard, come sail the sea with me,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
All passengers aboard, come sail the sea with me,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
Oh, my sweet Napoli, Oh, blessed soil,
Where nature smiles upon all of creation,
Oh, my sweet Napoli, Oh, blessed soil,
Where nature smiles upon all of creation,
You are the harmony, you are the empire,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
You are the harmony, you are the empire,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

As with most legends surrounding the life and death of St. Lucy, no certainty exists when it comes to her incorporation into Swedish life. During the 10th century, her feast day — December 13 — spread from France to Germany and England. She appeared on the Swedish liturgical calendar as early as 1470, when Sweden still was a Catholic country, and she survived the Reformation under King Gustav Vasa in the 16th century.

Still, her celebrations weren’t purely Christian. As with other winter solstice traditions, there were clear references to the dualities of life — darkness and light, cold and warmth — as well as to older, even darker traditions.

In northern Sweden, a belief held sway that Lucia was Adam’s first wife; that she consorted with Lucifer; and that their descendants spent their time in a very cold, very dark underworld. Even today’s traditional festive treat, the Lucia buns, or lussekatter, were in the old days called djävulskatter, or the devil’s cat; their shape was intended to represent a curled-up cat with raisin eyes.

Lucia Night, the evening before her feast, was considered a dangerous time: filled with supernatural beings and animals that could speak. The braver and bolder youngsters would dress as Lucia figures (lussegubbar), then wander from house to house singing songs and begging for food and schnapps.

Things began to take a turn with the first recorded appearance of a white-clad Swedish Lucia in 1764. By the 1880s, the eldest daughter in a household might serve coffee and lussekatter to others in the household. In the early 1900s, schools and local associations began promoting Sankta Lucia; as they did, lussegubbars faded away and singing processions became a more acceptable form of celebration than the youthful carousing of the past. In 1919, Sigrid Elmblad published lyrics to Santa Lucia in Swedish, using Teodoro Cottrau’s music, and Sankta Lucia was born.

Stockholm established its first Lucia celebration in 1927, paying tribute to Saint Lucy by placing a crown of fresh greens and lighted candles on the head of the girl chosen to represent Lucia. According to yet another legend, Saint Lucy had taken food to Christians hiding in the Roman catacombs while wearing candles to light her way, leaving her hands free to carry as much food as possible.

In today’s homes, the eldest daughter may forgo white robes and candlelit wreaths, but she still rises before the rest of the family to serve them lussekatter and coffee, as well as gingersnaps and mulled wine (glögg). In  villages and towns across Sweden — and in Swedish communities around the world — there are Lucia processions, concerts, and celebrations to signify the beginning of the Christmas season.

Even though my own grandparents arrived in this country from Sweden well before the formalization of Lucia festivities, they knew and honored the traditions. My grandmother baked lussekatter; they taught me the song; and once — just once! — I was allowed to wear a candlelit wreath in my hair.

In frigid, snow-deep darkness, my parents drove me the thirty miles to my grandparents’ home. We let ourselves in, arranged the lussekatter on a plate, and poured coffee from a thermos. Then, candles lighted and excitement high, we sang my grandparents awake.

Natten går tunga fjät runt gård och stuva.
Kring jord som sol förlät, skuggorna ruva.
Då i vårt mörka hus, stiger med tända ljus,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.
Natten var stor och stum. Nu hör, det svingar,
i alla tysta rum, sus som av vingar.
Se på vår tröskel står vitkläd med ljus i hår,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.
Mörkret skall flykta snart ur jordens dalar.”
Så hon ett underbart ord till oss talar.
Dagen skall åter gry, stiga ur rosig sky,
Sankta Lucia, Sankta Lucia.
Night walks with a heavy step
Round yard and hearth,
As the sun departs from earth,
Shadows are brooding.
There in our dark house,
Walking with lit candles,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Night walks grand, yet silent,
Now hear its gentle wings,
In every room so hushed,
Whispering like wings.
Look, at our threshold stands,
White-clad with light in her hair,
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!
Darkness shall take flight soon,
From earth’s valleys.
So she speaks
Wonderful words to us:
A new day will rise again
From the rosy sky…
Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia!

Comments always are welcome.

Songs of the Season ~ Riu, Riu, Chiu

Common or Eurasian Kingfisher  ~ Alcedo atthis

Advent and Christmas traditions vary from family to family and culture to culture, but those who celebrate cherish at least a favorite or two. Some have been maintained for centuries, like candlelight services at midnight. Others have emerged more recently, but are no less beloved: a certain Christmas dish; a favorite cookie; a must-see movie.

Each holiday season I recall traditions deeply embedded in the celebrations of my Swedish family: cardamom seed buns, kalvsylta (jellied veal), potatiskorv (potato sausage), and pickled herring; hand-strung cranberries on the Christmas tree; bayberry candles; and the delicate ringing of angel chimes. Pink and lavender trees, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and those ghastly ornaments made to look like a certain virus have their place, but I prefer my family’s more traditional ways, and probably always will.

Still, something occasionally emerges from the clutter and cacaphony of our commercialized season to attract my attention. Some years ago, a bit of song surprised me as I shopped. Light and rhythmic, it lilted through the store: a memorable melody with indecipherable words, sung in an unfamiliar language.

Eventually, I found the name of the song and learned its extraordinary history. The song, Riu, Riu Chiu” is contained in the Cancionero de Upsala [sic], 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 manuscript, 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 upon which source you consult. 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 the more delightful accidents of history. The volume may have been acquired as war booty when the Swedish army plundered Prague in 1631, or 1648, although how the manuscript traveled to Prague isn’t clear.

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.

This translation not only clarifies the collection’s contents, it sugggests its broad appeal :

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 instruments and voices.

In addition, the Upsala collection has preserved fifty-four villancicos. Over time, villancico came 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 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, editors 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. Well acquainted with the kingfisher’s call, as well as its willingness to aggressively defend its territory, I’m more than happy myself to consider “Riu, Riu Chiu” the “Kingfisher’s Carol.”

Whatever questions remain about the history of 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.

Today, versions of the carol abound. Everyone from Chanticleer to the Monkees have given it a whirl. But in this age of overly-produced recordings, the simplicity of the version offered by the Capella de Ministrers, an early music group formed in 1987 in Valencia, Spain, brings life to a timeless song of the season.

Cancionero de Upsala/Cancionero del Duque de Calabria ~ Atríbuido a Mateo Flecha el Viejo
Riu, riu, chiu
la guarda ribera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera.
El lobo rabioso
la quiso morder
Mas Dios Poderoso
la supo defender
Quizo la hacer que
no pudiese pecar
Ni aun original
esta virgen no tuviera.
Riu, riu, chiu…
Este que es nascido
es El Gran Monarca
Cristo Patriarca
de carne vestido
Ha nos redimido
con se hacer chiquito
Aunque era infinito
finito se hiciera.
Riu, riu, chiu …
Pues que ya tenemos
lo que deseamos
Todos juntos vamos
presentes llevemos
Todos le daremos
nuestra voluntad
Pues a se igualar
con nosotros viniera.

Riu, riu, chiu
The river bank is protected
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
The rabid wolf
Wanted to bite her
But Almighty God
Knew how to defend her
He willed to make her
Unable to sin
Even original sin
This virgin did not have
Riu, riu, chiu…
The one who is born
Is the Great Monarch
Christ the Patriarch
Clothed in flesh
He has redeemed us
By making himself small
Though he was infinite
He became finite
Riu, riu, chiu…
Now we have
What we desire
Let us go together
To present him gifts
Let us all give him
Our will
For he came
As our equal
Riu, riu, chiu…

Comments always are welcome.
The photo of the Kingfisher was taken by Mark Kilner on November 9, 2019, in Canterbury, England, and posted on Flickr.

NOTE: A commenter linked to the Monkee’s version of this song. When I visited that page, I noticed that the Kingston Trio also included the song on one of their albums. A commenter below the Kingston Trio version mentioned a secular version of the song, “Fa La La Lan” supposedly sung in Ladino, the language of Flory Jagoda’s “Ocho Kandelikas.” You can hear that version of “Riu, Riu, Chiu” here.