The Christmas Carol: A Reflection

by Nicholas Denysenko

Ой радуйся, земле, син Божий народився (Rejoice, o earth, for the son of God is born)

One of my favorite childhood memories is the singing of traditional Christmas carols. On January 7 (Christmas Day on the Julian calendar), after the festal Divine Liturgy, the parish choir came to my grandfather’s rectory and sang about an hour’s worth of the “greatest hits” of Ukrainian Christmas carols. For many years, our parish school would go to the homes of several parishioners and sing carols, anticipating the treats of piroshky (meat pies), varenyky (dumplings), sausage, and kapusta (cabbage). My favorite carol is an elongated version of the above refrain, known to Ukrainians throughout the world as “Добрий вечір тобі, пане господарю” (Good evening to you, honored host”), a song assuming that carolers are announcing the good news of a series of feasts to come to the home of the host family, who will then reward the carolers with the riches of food and drink.

If this sounds a bit odd, it is, as I attended a Ukrainian Orthodox parish that followed the Julian calendar with many immigrants, and my grandfather was their pastor.  Even though my brother and I weren’t fluent in Ukrainian and often complained about the incomprehensibility of the Old World liturgy, we knew the carols as well as the old timers, and sang them with equal enthusiasm.

As immigrant parishes aged and the immigrants began to pass away, many of these traditions started to wane. I wandered to different Orthodox parishes and found that some of them were either unaware of the old carols or viewed them as inferior to the rich corpus of Byzantine hymnography explaining the profundity of God’s incarnation. Anyone can examine the hymns of the Byzantine liturgical offices for Christmas and discover a wealth of theology rooted in the Bible and the Greek patristic tradition.

But what about Christmas carols? Do the cultures that cultivate carols and allow them a place of privilege in Church impoverish the liturgy, or enrich it? I have my own opinion, based on my recent experience with my three-year old daughter. She takes Spanish at her preschool and we do not speak Ukrainian at home. She learns plenty of kid-friendly songs at preschool and sings them with gusto at home, and is not usually interested in liturgical music. Because I am stubborn, I find my favorite Ukrainian carols on YouTube and in old CD collections and sing them every year. One might call me an antiquarianist, though I maintain that I am just being myself. Whatever the case, to my surprise, my daughter picked up on my favorite Ukrainian carol and has been singing it with me every night for the last two weeks, even through a bout of laryngitis. She requests it every night before bed, and throughout the day on winter “vacation.”

My initial thought was that her interest in the song demonstrates the power of a melodic refrain, easy to memorize and repeat, accessible to the average singer. While this is true, I cannot help but wonder if something deeper is at play, the power not only of refrain, but of a song or collection of songs that truly comes from and belongs to the people, not necessarily cultivated in monasteries or the academy, but truly a theology of the common people.  Songs that are not necessarily assigned to the liturgy, but are not alien to it, songs that have the power to communicate the good news of the Lord’s birth on an authentic global stage, even in the daily turbulence of snarled traffic, crowded malls, and image oversaturation. My heart tells me that my daughter has taught me a valuable lesson, that the Christmas carol simultaneously offers God a real gift and graces those who hear it with the essentials of the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, a beautiful testimony to the resilience of the people’s theology in the cacophony of contemporary culture.

 

Nicholas Denysenko is Assistant Professor of Theological Studies and director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany

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2 comments

  1. My father grew up in a multi-ethnic mining patch in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Christmas Eve begin with caroling as people went from house to house singing ethnic carols and enjoying each others ethnic food and the tradition of the 12 course meatless Christmas Eve meal. The carols and feasting continued Christmas Day. My Lithuanian grandmother once told me that the tradition in the old country was not to have sit down meals. Essentially each day women put food out and on the stove and everyone nibbled during work breaks. So Christmas was just a time of continuous eating, drinking, singing and conversation without much work.

    Dad liked and remembered the old Polish carols. He knew enough Polish to understand but not speak it. Eventually we got some Polish records. However I only learned how to swear in Polish from listening to my grandfather. My mother only learned how to count in German from her mother. I didn’t even learn that.

    The parishes where I grew up were not ethnic and did not have ethnic carols. That was influenced by my German-English side of the family which felt itself superior to Slavic Catholics (whose husbands beat their wives!)

    In the 1980s the parish in Toledo where I served as a voluntary pastoral staff member had a very small Polish heritage (less than 10%). The organist learned a few Polish hymns and carols and so this older minority group were able to have “their parish” back again during some of the Masses at Christmas and the Marian seasons and feasts.

    The local Orthodox Church does Christmas Eve as a Vespers, Great Compline, Matins Service; everything in English. It is followed by a concert of carols rather than the Liturgy of Saint Basil (The Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom is done on Christmas Day.

    My favorite parish with its award winning choir does an Epiphany concert each year. They now have a woman from Poland as choir director. This year the first half is going to be ethnic Christmas music, followed by the Magnificat by Tomas Albinoni, including soloists from Baldwin Wallace College, and a small local string orchestra. The parish hosts various concerts, mostly free will offerings for charities, during the year.

  2. I find it curious, Professor Denysenko, that your posting mentions a “theology of the common people,” in light of my own Christmas eve homily this year. It appears to me that suburban American Roman Catholics (or perhaps those that fill the pews at Easter and Christmas) have settled upon late Christmas Eve afternoon as the preferred liturgy. The parish with whom I celebrate Christmas has two simultaneous jam-packed Christmas Eve liturgies, one in the church (with the pastor) and one in the gym (with yours truly). Experience has taught me that I have about a minute to engage folks distracted by three- and four-year old children and grandchildren chafing in their Christmas clothes, awash in sugarplums and other stimulants. So… I had everyone sing the first verse of “Away in a Manger,” a well-known carol. And then I read the third verse, calling attention to the last two strophes: “Bless all the dear children in thy tender care/And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” All very fine, I said — Jesus was born that we might live in heaven. But I reminded them also that Jesus was born that we might know the promise of heaven in the here and now. I proposed an alternative final verse:
    Embrace us, Lord Jesus, our gift from above,
    And teach us the blessings of self-giving love.
    We bless you at Christmas, the feast of your birth;
    Your coming among us brings heaven to earth.
    A brief message, to be sure. But it reminded me to be careful about the words we put forward for others to pray and sing.

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