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Christmas in Ritual and Tradition

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Erika Zimney
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« Reply #15 on: December 25, 2008, 10:48:54 pm »

The Reformation marks a change in the character of Christmas poetry in England and the larger part of Germany, and, instead of following its development under Protestantism, it will be well to break off and turn awhile to countries where Catholic tradition remained unbroken. We shall come back later to Post-Reformation England and Protestant Germany.

In French 3-1 there is little or no Christmas poetry, religious in character, before the fifteenth century; the earlier carols that have come down to us are songs rather of feasting and worldly rejoicing than of sacred things. The true Noël begins to appear in fifteenth-century manuscripts, but it was not till the following century that it attained its fullest vogue and was spread all over the country by the printing presses. Such Noëls seem to have been written by clerks or recognized poets, either for old airs or for specially composed music. “To a great extent,” says Mr. Gregory Smith, “they anticipate the spirit which stimulated the Reformers to turn the popular and often obscene songs into good and godly ballads.” 3-2

Some of the early Noëls are not unlike the English carols of the period, and are often half in Latin, half in French. Here are a few such “macaronic” verses:—

“Célébrons la naissance


Nostri Salvatoris,p. 56


Qui fait la complaisance


Dei sui Patris.


Cet enfant tout aimable,


In nocte mediâ,


Est né dans une étable,


De castâ Mariâ.


*       *       *       *       *


Mille esprits angéliques,


Juncti pastoribus,


Chantent dans leur musique,


Puer vobis natus,


Au Dieu par qui nous sommes,


Gloria in excelsis,


Et la paix soit aux hommes


Bonae voluntatis.


*       *       *       *       *


Qu'on ne soit insensible!


Adeamus omnes


A Dieu rendu passible,


Propter nos mortales,


Et tous, de compagnie,


Deprecemur eum


Qu’à la fin de la vie,


Det regnum beatum.” 3-3


The sixteenth century is the most interesting Noël period; we find then a conflict of tendencies, a conflict between Gallic realism and broad humour and the love of refined language due to the study of the ancient classics. There are many anonymous pieces of this time, but three important Noëlistes stand out by name: Lucas le Moigne, Curé of Saint Georges, Puy-la-Garde, near Poitiers; Jean Daniel, called “Maître Mitou,” a priest-organist at Nantes; and Nicholas Denisot of Le Mans, whose Noëls appeared posthumously under the pseudonym of “Comte d'Alsinoys.”

Lucas le Moigne represents the esprit gaulois, the spirit that is often called “Rabelaisian,” though it is only one side of the genius of Rabelais. The good Curé was a contemporary of p. 57 the author of “Pantagruel.” His “Chansons de Noëls nouvaulx” was published in 1520, and contains carols in very varied styles, some naïve and pious, others hardly quotable at the present day. One of his best-known pieces is a dialogue between the Virgin and the singers of the carol: Mary is asked and answers questions about the wondrous happenings of her life. Here are four verses about the Nativity:—

“Or nous dites, Marie,


Les neuf mois accomplis,


Naquit le fruit de vie,


Comme l'Ange avoit dit?


—Oui, sans nulle peine


Et sans oppression,


Naquit de tout le monde


La vraie Rédemption.


Or nous dites, Marie,


Du lieu impérial,


Fut-ce en chambre parée,


Ou en Palais royal?


—En une pauvre étable


Ouverte à l'environ


Ou n'avait feu, ni flambe


Ni latte, ni chevron.


Or nous dites, Marie,


Qui vous vint visiter;


Les bourgeois de la ville


Vous ont-ils confortée?


—Oncque, homme ni femme


N'en eut compassion,


Non plus que d'un esclave


D’étrange région.


*       *       *       *       *


Or nous dites, Marie,


Des pauvres pastoureaux


Qui gardaient ès montagnes


Leurs brebis & aigneaux.p. 58


—Ceux-là m'ont visitée


Par grande affection;


Moult me fut agréable


Leur visitation.” 3-4


The influence of the “Pléiade,” with its care for form, its respect for classical models, its enrichment of the French tongue with new Latin words, is shown by Jean Daniel, who also owes something to the poets of the late fifteenth century. Two stanzas may be quoted from him:—

“C'est ung très grant mystère


Qu'ung roy de si hault pris


Vient naistre en lieu austère,


En si meschant pourpris:


Le Roy de tous les bons espritz,


C'est Jésus nostre frère,


Le Roy de tous les bons espritz,


Duquel sommes apris.


Saluons le doulx Jésuchrist,


Notre Dieu, notre frère,


Saluons le doulx Jésuchrist,


Chantons Noel d'esprit!


*       *       *       *       *


En luy faisant prière,


Soyons de son party,


Qu'en sa haulte emperière


Ayons lieu de party;


Comme il nous a droict apparty,


Jésus nostre bon frère,


Comme il nous a droict apparty


Au céleste convy.


Saluons, etc.


Amen. Noel.” 3-5


As for Denisot, I may give two charming verses from one of his pastorals:—

“Suz, Bergiez, en campaigne,


Laissez là vos troppeaux,p. 59


Avant qu'on s'accompaigne,


Enflez vos chalumeaux.


*       *       *       *       *


Enflez vos cornemuses,


Dansez ensemblement,


Et vos doucettes muses,


Accollez doucement.” 3-6


One result of the Italian influences which came over France in the sixteenth century was a fondness for diminutives. Introduced into carols, these have sometimes a very graceful effect:—

“Entre le boeuf & le bouvet,


Noel nouvellet,


Voulust Jésus nostre maistre,


En un petit hostelet,


Noel nouvellet,


En ce pauvre monde naistre,


O Noel nouvellet!


Ne couche, ne bercelet,


Noel nouvellet,


Ne trouvèrent en cette estre,


Fors ung petit drappelet,


Noel nouvellet,


Pour envelopper le maistre,


O Noel nouvellet!” 3-7


These diminutives are found again, though fewer, in a particularly delightful carol:—

“Laissez paître vos bestes


Pastoureaux, par monts et par vaux;


Laissez paître vos bestes,


Et allons chanter Nau.


J'ai ouï chanter le rossignol,


Qui chantoit un chant si nouveau,


Si haut, si beau,


Si résonneau,p. 60


Il m'y rompoit la tête,


Tant il chantoit et flageoloit:


Adonc pris ma houlette


Pour aller voir Naulet.


Laissez paître, etc.” 3-8

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