Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
“Christmas Carols and Their Stories”
Introduction to the Service Listen
This morning I thought it would be fun and different to sing some different Christmas Carols and hear their stories. Throughout the history of the church, worship has included singing… from the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs mentioned in the New Testament, and through every generation, Christians have composed Psalm settings, sung our prayers as chants, written hymns, carols, and contemporary praise songs. Sometimes we have used instruments, and sometimes not. Sometimes the words have come straight from Scripture, and sometimes it has been poetry inspired by the Bible and a reflection on our faith.
The songs known as Christmas Carols are diverse too… some written specifically for corporate worship, and others sung primarily out in the community or in family homes, but carrying the Christian faith into the public realm of culture and daily life.
“I Saw Three Ships” Listen
The first carol for today is “I Saw Three Ships.” Probably most of us have heard or sung it, but I don’t think I’ve ever sung it in church.
The tune of this carol is a traditional English folk song and the words (of which there are several versions) were written by wandering minstrels as they travelled through the country. In the original version of the carol, the Three Ships were the ones taking the supposed skulls of the wise men to Cologne Cathedral in Germany.
However, since the Middle Ages, when it was first written, there have been many different lyrics with different Bible characters being on the ships. The most popular contemporary lyrics talk about three ships coming sailing in to Bethlehem on Christmas morning. Bruce Cockburn says the weird lyrics are the result of English folk in the 18th century hallucinating from eating too much moldy bread. Certainly, there were no ships sailing into landlocked Bethlehem.
But there is a much older tradition around this song that is very interesting. The lyrics were first collected and associated with Cornwall in England, where folk wisdom recalls the time when “Christ came to Cornwall.”
In the rich tin mine country of Cornwall, they have a tradition among the metal workers (or “tin men”) that St. Joseph of Arimathea, the rich man of the Gospels, made his money in the tin trade between Phoenicia and Cornwall.
They say that Joseph made several voyages to Britain in his own ships, and that on one occasion he brought with him the Child Christ and his Mother as passengers, and landed them at St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.
One old woman from the area when interviewed in the 19th century said, “Joseph was a tin man. Of course, we know Our Saviour preached to the miners. He was very fond of the miners.”
Isn’t that a lovely thought? Christ was very fond of the miners… and the farmers, and the teachers, and the bus drivers, and the homemakers, and I could go on… Jesus was fond of us, God’s children, and so he sailed into our world on Christmas day in the morning.
GOOD NEWS for our Children & Silent Night Listen
Do any of you like to sing? I really like singing. I think by giving us voices that can not only speak but also sing, God has given us a wonderful gift. We can make beautiful sounds when we sing, and especially when we sing together in harmony. I love singing to praise God! It makes me feel joyful, and peaceful, and happy.
Since today is Christmas Day (Jesus’ birthday) what do you think would be a good song to sing today?
That was fun! But I have another song in mind that is perfect for celebrating Jesus’ birthday as well. It’s a song about the night that Jesus was born so long ago in Bethlehem. And I think you all know it: “Silent Night.”
The words of “Silent Night” were written by a priest called Fr. Joseph Mohr in Austria 200 years ago. And the tune was added by his friend Franz Gruber, for the Christmas Eve Service in the year 1818.
There is a legend about the carol (that’s a story where we’re not really sure if it is true or not). The legend goes that Fr. Mohr wanted “Silent Night” to be sung by the children of the village at the midnight Christmas Eve Service as a surprise for their parents. But in the middle of practising, the organ broke and not a note would come from it!
So the children had to learn the carol only accompanied by a guitar. They learned the carol so well that they could sing it on its own without accompaniment.
“The Little Drummer Boy” Listen
The song we know as “The Little Drummer Boy” was originally called “The Carol of the Drum.” It was written quite recently (compared to some of the other carols we are singing today) by an American composer and teacher, Katherine Davis, in 1941. It became quite famous when it was recorded in 1951 by the Austrian Trapp Family Singers, and since then it has been recorded and shared many, many times.
“The Little Drummer Boy” tells a wonderful short story of a poor boy who feels he has no gift to give to the baby Jesus. In spite of his lack of gifts, he offers to play his drum for him, to the delight of all in the stable, especially baby Jesus, who smiles at the drummer boy.
Not only is this song fun to sing with its drum-like “pa-rum-pa-pum-pums,” but it also embraces a non-materialistic message that we all need to hear, especially at this time of year. In a society of hyper-commercialized Christmas, where we are bombarded with advertisements filled with the pressure to find the perfect gift, “The Little Drummer Boy” challenges this societal expectation. Perhaps the perfect gift is really just ourselves, being who we are, bringing our own gifts and talents to each other and to a world in deep need of healing.
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” Listen
Perhaps more than any of the other carols we are singing this morning, this is probably one that you wouldn’t have expected to sing in worship. It doesn’t seem to be about God, about faith, or about the birth of Jesus. It’s a secular folk song, isn’t it?
Well, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English Christmas carol. From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. So, someone during that era wrote this carol as a disguised catechism song for young Catholics.
It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning, plus a hidden meaning known only to members of the church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality which the children could remember.
The “True Love” one hears about in the song is not a smitten boy or girlfriend, but Jesus Christ, because truly Love was born on Christmas Day. The partridge in the par tree also represents Christ, because that bird is willing to sacrifice its life if necessary to protect its young by feigning injury to draw away predators.
So, what are the other hidden meanings in the song?
- The two turtle doves are the Old and New Testaments.
- The three French hens are faith, hope, and love.
- The four calling birds are the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
- The five gold rings represent the first five books of the Old Testament, the ones also called the Torah, the Pentateuch, or the Books of the Law.
- The six geese a-laying are the six days of Creation.
- The seven swans a-swimming are the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy.
- The eight maids a-milking are the eight Beatitudes.
- The nine ladies dancing are the nine Fruits of the Spirit.
- The ten lords a-leaping are the Ten Commandments.
- The eleven pipers piping are the eleven faithful Apostles.
- And the twelve drummers drumming are the twelve points of faith in the Apostles’ Creed.
You’ll never think of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” quite the same again, will you? So, we better all take a deep breath and sing it!
“Good King Wenceslas” Listen
“Good King Wenceslas” was written in 19th Century Britain by John Mason Neale to a traditional folk tune. The story in the carol is about the King (or Duke) of Bohemia (an area of Central Europe which is now part of the Czech Republic) over 1000 years ago. The King looks out from his castle on Boxing Day, sees peasants, and takes food and wood for a fire to them.
According to what I’ve read, the story of King Wenceslas in the carol is probably completely made up, but it was inspired by an actual person.
Wenceslas’ father was the Duke of Bohemia and a Christian, but it’s thought that his mother might have been a pagan. His father died when he was 12 and, as he was not old enough to become Duke until he was 18, his mother took control of the land as regent. During this time his grandmother, Ludmilla, took care of Wenceslas and brought him up as a Christian (she smuggled priests into the house to help teach him). It’s thought that his mother had Ludmilla banished to a distant castle where she was murdered by the Queen’s guards!
Wenceslas was still a Christian after this and learned to read and write, something which was unusual for even a King/Duke in those days! He had local Bishops smuggled in at night to teach him the Bible. When he reached 18, Wenceslas took control of his dukedom. He then defended Bohemia from a couple of invasions by Dukes of neighboring regions and legend says that he banished his mother and her pagan followers from his castle.
Wenceslas put in a good education system and a successful law and order system, so the parts of the carol story about him being a kind King are certainly true!
After four years of happiness, when Wenceslas was 22, his brother, Boleslav, became very jealous of Wenceslas and plotted (possibly with the pagan followers of their mother) to kill Wenceslas. Boleslav invited Wenceslas to celebrate a saint’s day with him, but on the way to the church, Wenceslas was attacked and stabbed to death by three of Boleslav’s followers!
The story told in the carol was written by a Czech poet in 1847, and later translated and set to a folk tune in Britain. Although it isn’t obviously a Christmas carol – it’s not about God, or faith, or the birth of Christ – “Good King Wenceslas” carries an appropriately Christian message for this time of year.
Just imagine the king standing on his balcony on the day after Christmas (St. Stephen’s Day). He’s probably full from feasting on pheasants and wine. Content with his luxuries, he sees a peasant – a poor man – looking only to chop wood for a fire.
Why didn’t he plan better? Surely other peasants knew that a storm was brewing, as Wenceslas only saw one man. Maybe he was lazy. Or maybe he had unexpected guests. Maybe he toiled long in his mountainous fields and simply did not have the energy to find wood to build a fire. Nevertheless, Good King Wenceslas had pity on the man, and led his page out into the snow to bring this man some meat, drink, and wood.
There is a season for researching, debating, and discussing ways to end poverty and hunger once and for all. But this is not that season. Christmastime, as understood by Wenceslas, is when you’re supposed to think of something thoughtful to do, and just do it.
“’Twas in the moon of wintertime” Listen
I thought it would be very appropriate to end our carol stories and songs with a uniquely Canadian Christmas carol. “Twas in the moon of wintertime” was written around 1642 by Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons.
Brébeuf wrote the lyrics in the native language of the Huron People, with the English translation that we know being written by Jesse Edgar Middleton in 1926. The melody was based on a traditional French folk song.
“Twas in the moon of wintertime” uses imagery familiar in the early 20th century, in place of the traditional Nativity story. Jesus is born in a “lodge of broken bark” and wrapped in a “robe of rabbit skin.” He is surrounded by hunters instead of shepherds, and the Magi are portrayed as “chiefs from afar” who bring him “fox and beaver pelts” instead of the more familiar gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It also includes a traditional Algonquin name, Gitchi Manitou, for God.
And perhaps, in singing it together this Christmas morning, we can remember that God comes to us – to each and to all of us, God’s children – into the particular places and cultures and languages where we live. “Jesus, our king, is born. In excelsis Gloria!”