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