The Carol of the Guardians

Common or Eurasian Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis (Wikimedia)

Christmas traditions vary from family to family and culture to culture, but nearly everyone who celebrates cherishes at least one or two. Some have been passed down for centuries. Others are newer, but no less beloved: a certain Christmas Eve dish; a favorite cookie recipe; a must-see movie; candlelight services at midnight.

My own celebrations recall the traditions of my Swedish family: cardamom seed buns and pickled herring; strings of cranberries on the tree; bayberry candles, and sweet, tinkling angel chimes.  Pink and lavender trees, Mannheim Steamroller, and Elves on the Shelves have their place, but I prefer my family’s older ways, and probably always will.

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

Eventually, I found the source of the song and learned its extraordinary history.

Riu, Riu Chiu” is a part of 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, 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. 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 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 are welcome.

Innocents, Still

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Cuenca, Ecuador

Lisa Brunetti, an artist and friend who blogs from her home in Ecuador, greeted her readers on Christmas day with a heartfelt Feliz Navidad and a reminder of a charming Ecuadorian custom:

At the  midnight hour on December 24th, many people in Ecuador pause during their late-night meal and raise a toast to Baby Jesus. They exchange greetings with everyone in the room; then they return to their seats and resume their meal.

Other Ecuadorians, on their way to Christmas Eve Mass, carry the Christ-child from their families’ nativity scenes to the church. The infants are placed on the altar until midnight. At the end of the service, they’re carried back home and returned to their mangers.

It’s a lovely tradition, reminiscent of some Americans’ practice of leaving the manger empty until Christmas Day. Once the baby Jesus has been tucked back into the heart of his family, 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.

The temptation to abandon the Christ-child to eternal infancy isn’t particularly surprising. Babies offer challenges, to be sure, but there’s very little more touching than the sight of a sleeping infant, warm and secure. More than a few parents and grandparents have been heard to murmur the ages-old wish: “If only this time would last, just a bit longer.”

Life doesn’t allow for such freeze-frames, of course. Gazing in delight at innocent babes in bassinets is only the beginning. Soon enough come colic and teething, followed closely by the terrible twos.  Eventually, orthodontists, tutors or coaches come knocking at the door. The driver’s license becomes unavoidable, as does that awkward young man with the skateboard and tattoo who appears to know the daughter everyone assumed was spending weekends in her bedroom, reading.

Sometimes life hands out worse than a tattooed skateboarder. Unhappy choices of friends may lead to a Saturday night call from jail, or a suspension from school. Now and then, illness diverts the flow of life, or accidental injury. Given the unpredictability of life, it’s impossible to know what’s just around the bend. Whatever it is, it may be heading straight for us, perfectly capable of  doing in our children, and us along with them.

In countries less fortunate than the United States, the challenges are different, but equally daunting. Preventable diseases like measles and malaria, environmental scourges like shistosomiasis, and simple malnutrition lead to much higher infant mortality rates. Violence, insurrection, civil war, and genocide kill or displace hundreds of thousands every year.  

While our Christmas celebrations often romanticize a single stable, children born today into stables and barns, refugee camps, colonias, barrios, and slums around the world continue to suffer and die. They are defenseless, with few advocates, and their needs rarely are considered. Innocents in every sense of the word, they have done nothing to deserve their fate.

Massacre of the Innocents ~ Illustrated Bible, Monastery of St. Bertin, France (c. 1200 CE)

The Christian Feast of The Holy Innocents, celebrated on December 28, commemorates the death of such defenseless children.  According to historical sources, King Herod the Great, Rome’s man in Judea, already was wearing his crown a little uneasily when Jesus was born.  

Given to tyrannical and repressive behavior,  Herod lived in a state of hypervigilance, fearing both Rome and his own subjects alike.  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 reportedly ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two.

Whether the massacre is historical fact remains an open question, although evidence exists 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.

An especially poignant and mournful Christmas song commemorates the killing of those defenseless infants. Named for Coventry, England, the 16th century Coventry Carol formed part of the Medieval Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, an entertainment rooted in 14th century morality plays and provided by tradesmen to their towns.

One of the oldest unadapted carols we have, the Coventry Carol retains both the original lyrics (words attributed to Robert Croo, 1534) and tune (Thomas Mawdyke, 1591). Both were recorded in 1591, and their preservation makes the Coventry Mystery Plays especially memorable.

“Coventry Carol”  ~ Collegium Vocale Gent
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.

Understandably, 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 or Adeste Fidelis. Offered the chance to move beyond familial scenes bathed in golden light toward a feast memorializing the slaughter of children, even our violence-ridden culture seems to hesitate.

Perhaps because of its unapologetic realism, the Coventry Carol has become one of a multitude of Christmas 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 while choosing 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, and transform their song of darkness into a dance of light.

Dancing Coventry Carol ~ Farah Canale, Principal, Anchorage Ballet

Comments always are welcome.

Iesous Ahatonhia: The Huron Carol

“A Huron-Wendat Hunter Calling Moose” ~  Cornelius Krieghoff, 1868

Known as the first North American Christmas carol, “The Huron Carol” was written by Père Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary and accomplished linguist who supervised the preparation of a Huron grammar and dictionary.

After arriving in Quebec from Normandy in 1625,  de Brébeuf (1593-1649) lived and worked among the Huron from 1626 to 1629, and then again from 1634 until his torture and death at the hands of the Iroquois in 1649. Canonized in 1930, de Brébeuf became one of the patron saints of Canada.

Like so many early missionaries, de Brébeuf necessarily became an explorer. After being assigned to Huronia, he found himself crossing the 800 miles that separated Quebec from the Hurons by canoe. It was far from an easy trip, as  the Dictionary of Canadian Biography makes clear:
Continue reading

For Cats Who Love Christmas

Laugh at the antlers if you must, but laugh at your peril. That business-like look in the eyes of my beautiful calico is very real. Dixie Rose (short for Dixie-Rose-Center-of-the-Universe-and-Queen-of-all-She-Surveys) loves Christmas, and she intends to be ready when it arrives. I don’t advise standing in her way.

Dixie arrived on my doorstep fourteen years ago: an unloved, four-month-old stray who became my first pet. I did receive a small, painted turtle as a child, but it met an unfortunate end. A well-meant birthday puppy lasted only a few hours.  Tiny but exceedingly enthusiastic, the black Cocker Spaniel terrified me, and soon was sent packing by disconsolate adults.

Later, I raised a fox squirrel, and laughed my way through four years with a prairie dog, but my relationship to Dixie Rose is of a different order entirely. I believe her to be the most beautiful creature on four paws. Whether she’s the most spoiled remains up for debate, but she’s working at it — diligently. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Even Cats Crave Christmas!

Laugh at the antlers if you will, but laugh at your peril. That business-like look in the eyes of my beautiful calico is very real. Dixie Rose (short for Dixie-Rose-Center-of-the-Universe-and-Queen-of-all-She-Surveys) loves Christmas, and she intends to be ready when it arrives. Do not stand in her way.

Dixie arrived at my door as an unloved, four-month-old stray who became my first real pet. As a child I did receive a small painted turtle, but the poor thing met a most unfortunate end. My birthday puppy lasted only hours. A tiny but exceedingly enthusiastic black Cocker Spaniel, the pup terrified me and was sent packing by disconsolate adults.

Later, I raised a fox squirrel and laughed my way through four years with a prairie dog, but my relationship with Dixie Rose is of a different order entirely. I believe her to be the most beautiful and most clever creature on four paws. I don’t think she’s the most spoiled creature in the world, but we’re working on it – diligently. Continue reading

Looking East

Christmas comes differently to the country.

Twisted and threaded around and through twin pieces of rusted rebar that serve as mailbox supports, the plastic pine garland is older than several of the children who tumble from the school bus. Still, its shabbiness is apparent only to the mail carrier, or to the slippered woman trudging down the lane from her house, hoping against hope to find greetings in her box.  From the road, the garland appears perfect, full and fresh.  From a distance, even plastic communicates the determination and joy pulsing in the woman’s heart.  In this house, she thinks, we will celebrate. We will mark the season. We will share our joy with you, the passer-by.

Farther down the road,  a wreath made of vines adorns a gate propped against a fence. Its ribbon flutters in the wind, attracting attention, drawing the eye over the gate and into a pasture.  There’s a brush pile, and some uncleared mesquite. A few trees, pushed over and left to die, wait to be added to the pile.  No cattle roam, no stock tank or pond offers refreshment – not even a piece of rusted, broken-down machinery resists the despondent wind sighing across the field. Continue reading