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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, 10:49:57 pm »

Apart from the rustic Noëls, the eighteenth century produced little French Christmas poetry of any charm. Some of the carols most sung in French churches to-day belong, however, to this period, e.g., the “Venez, divin Messie” of the Abbé Pellegrin. 3-13

One cannot leave the France of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries without some mention of its Latin hymnody. From a date near 1700, apparently, comes the sweet and solemn “Adeste, fideles”; by its music and its rhythm, perhaps, rather than by its actual words it has become the best beloved of Christmas hymns. The present writer has heard it sung with equal reverence and heartiness in English, German, French, and Italian churches, and no other hymn seems so full of the spirit of Christmas devotion—wonder, p. 64 awe, and tenderness, and the sense of reconciliation between Heaven and earth. Composed probably in France, “Adeste, fideles” came to be used in English as well as French Roman Catholic churches during the eighteenth century. In 1797 it was sung at the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London; hence no doubt its once common name of “Portuguese hymn.” It was first used in an Anglican church in 1841, when the Tractarian Oakley translated it for his congregation at Margaret Street Chapel, London.

Another fine Latin hymn of the eighteenth-century French Church is Charles Coffin's “Jam desinant suspiria.” 3-14 It appeared in the Parisian Breviary in 1736, and is well known in English as “God from on high hath heard.”

The Revolution and the decay of Catholicism in France seem to have killed the production of popular carols. The later nineteenth century, however, saw a revival of interest in the Noël as a literary form. In 1875 the bicentenary of Saboly's death was celebrated by a competition for a Noël in the Provençal tongue, and something of the same kind has been done in Brittany. 3-15 The Noël has attracted by its aesthetic charm even poets who are anything but devout; Théophile Gautier, for instance, wrote a graceful Christmas carol, “Le ciel est noir, la terre est blanche.”

On a general view of the vernacular Christmas poetry of France it must be admitted that the devotional note is not very strong; there is indeed a formal reverence, a courtly homage, paid to the Infant Saviour, and the miraculous in the Gospel story is taken for granted; but there is little sense of awe and mystery. In harmony with the realistic instincts of the nation, everything is dramatically, very humanly conceived; at times, indeed, the personages of the Nativity scenes quite lose their sacred character, and the treatment degenerates into grossness. At its best, however, the French Noël has a gaiety and a grace, joined to a genuine, if not very deep, piety, that are extremely charming. Reading these rustic songs, we are carried in imagination to French countrysides; we think of the long walk through the snow to the Midnight Mass, the cheerful réveillon spread on the p. 65 return, the family gathered round the hearth, feasting on wine and chestnuts and boudins, and singing in traditional strains the joys of Noël.

Across the Pyrenees, in Spain, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw a great output of Christmas verse. Among the chief writers were Juan López de Ubeda, Francisco de Ocaña, and José de Valdivielso. 3-16 Their villancicos remind one of the paintings of Murillo; they have the same facility, the same tender and graceful sentiment, without much depth. They lack the homely flavour, the quaintness that make the French and German folk-carols so delightful; they have not the rustic tang, and yet they charm by their simplicity and sweetness.

Here are a few stanzas by Ocaña:—

“Dentro de un pobre pesebre


y cobijado con heno


yace Jesus Nazareno.


En el heno yace echado


el hijo de Dios eterno,


para librar del infierno


al hombre que hubo criado,


y por matar el pecado


el heno tiene por bueno


nuestro Jesus Nazareno.


Está entre dos animales


que le calientan del frio,


quien remedia nuestros males


con su grande poderío:


es su reino y señorío


el mundo y el cielo sereno,


y agora duerme en el heno.


Tiene por bueno sufrir


el frio y tanta fortuna,


sin tener ropa ninguna


con que se abrigar ni cubrir,p. 66


y por darnos el vivir


padeció frio en el heno,


nuestro Jesus Nazareno.” 25 3-17


More of a peasant flavour is found in some snatches of Christmas carols given by Fernan Caballero in her sketch, “La Noche de Navidad.”

“Ha nacido en un portal,


Llenito de telarañas,


Entre la mula y el buey


El Redentor de las almas.


*       *       *       *       *


En el portal de Belen


Hay estrella, sol y luna:


La Virgen y San José


Y el niño que está en la cuna.


En Belen tocan á fuego,


Del portal sale la llama,


Es una estrella del cielo,


Que ha caido entre la paja.


Yo soy un pobre gitano


Que vengo de Egipto aquí,


Y al niño de Dios le traigo


Un gallo quiquiriquí


Yo soy un pobre gallego


Que vengo de la Galicia,


Y al niño de Dios le traigo


Lienzo para una camisa.p. 67


Al niño recien nacido


Todos le traen un don;


Yo soy chico y nada tengo;


Le traigo mi corazon.” 26 3-18


In nearly every western language one finds traditional Christmas carols. Europe is everywhere alive with them; they spring up like wild flowers. Some interesting Italian specimens are given by Signor de Gubernatis in his “Usi Natalizi.” Here are a few stanzas from a Bergamesque cradle-song of the Blessed Virgin:—

“Dormi, dormi, o bel bambin,


Re divin.


Dormi, dormi, o fantolin.


Fa la nanna, o caro figlio,


Re del Ciel,


Tanto bel, grazioso giglio.


Chiüdi i lümi, o mio tesor,


Dolce amor,


Di quest’ alma, almo Signor;


Fa la nanna, o regio infante,


Sopra il fien,


Caro ben, celeste amante.


Perchè piangi, o bambinell,


Forse il giel


Ti dà noia, o l'asinell?


Fa la nanna, o paradiso


Del mio cor,


Redentor, ti bacio il viso.” 27 3-19

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