December 31 is a day of thanksgiving for the blessings of the Old Year that is passing. Traditionally the Te Deum is sung at St Peter’s in Rome on this day (formerly it was sung at the Church of the Gesù).
This ancient and beautiful hymn of praise, formerly attributed both to St Augustine and St Ambrose and now more reliably ascribed to Nicetas of Remesiana (ca. 333/5-414), is so old that its provenance is uncertain (the lines extolling the apostles, prophets and martyrs echo some similar lines in a work of St Cyprian, but this seems to be coincidence, though the relationship between the triple Sanctus section, the similar Mass text and Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8 is obvious).
Not only that but the history of its form is unclear. Too old for rhyming lines (in this regard, it is similar to the Gloria in excelsis hymn), the structure is also diffuse: an opening section whose subject is God the Father and ending with a kind of Trinitarian doxology, a middle section that speaks to Jesus Christ, and a closing section of a patchwork of psalm verses whose mood is one of praying for deliverance rather than praise. The 3rd-mode chant tone used for the opening section is modified in the second section, while the third section is a random concatenation of a third melody with elements of the other two mixed in with it. It seems evident that many different author/composers had a hand in producing what we have today.
Anyone singing or praying the text today, December 31, can gain a plenary indulgence under the usual conditions. It is also used in the Office of Readings on Sundays (outside Lent), feasts and solemnities as well as during the octaves of Christmas and Easter, and thus many composers have set the text, both Latin and English, in the past. Probably the most extreme example is that of Berlioz, who transposes sections of the liturgical text into a different order. Not far behind is Clarence Walworth’s very loose paraphrase familiar to many Catholics as Holy God, we praise thy name.
Growing up in the 1950s, I remember going to our local Jesuit church each year on the evening of December 31 to hear the choir sing — not the Te Deum but Mendelssohn’s Lauda Sion. The aim was the same: to give thanks and praise in song. I don’t personally know of any churches that still maintain that sort of tradition any longer, but I am sure Pray Tell readers will tell us where they are!
The Te Deum will also be sung tomorrow, being a solemnity; but also earning a plenary indulgence is the singing or reciting of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus on New Year’s Day as a prayer for blessings during the coming year. I have never heard of any church doing this, but I am sure there must be some. On the whole, our secular society has ensured that these devotional practices have been largely replaced by the often alcohol-fuelled letting-off of fireworks at midnight on New Year’s Eve.