Just how bleak was the midwinter?

Does Bethlehem get snow?

Singing and thinking about Christmas carols (as one does a lot at this time of year), sometimes an unexpected thought strikes you. I found myself speculating on the weather in Bethlehem. One carol was talking about the bleak midwinter with snow on snow (and the accompaniment always sounds as though it’s adding another two layers) and another one was talking about soft winds blowing through the olive trees. They couldn’t both be right, I thought. So I started thinking about how our conception of the first Christmas is conditioned by our own experience rather than by what was (probably) true.

Crib scene in the snow
Plenty of snow around here
You have to have snow at Christmas

Weather is the first assumption we make : if you play Word Association Football with anyone and start with the word ‘Christmas’, you will almost certainly get snow as the first or second word following.  Christmas cards are full of snow.  We picture carol singers as rosy-faced, swaddled up in warm layers, standing in the snow to sing, and even singing about snow (especially if they are singing other songs as well as carols : Jingle Bells, White Christmas etc).  (If anyone wants the liturgical music for during Christmas masses, check out the Gentle Guide to my music for that at www.musicformass.co.uk.)

Not every Christmas is white

Some of the older carols have more temperate weather.  In While shepherds watched, the shepherds are ‘all seated on the ground’, which they certainly woudn’t be if it was under a foot of snow.  In The first Nowell, they are lying in the fields, which implies a certain degree of relaxation, if not necessarily comfort.  If the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem had meant trekking through deep snow, Joseph and Mary would have planned it differently, especially knowing that the baby might arrive  at some point on the way.  Elizabeth, with her own baby safely delivered a few months back, would surely have expressed a strong opinion against foolhardy travelling.  To go for a more modern carol, Little Donkey has them travelling on a dusty road, which would be easier going than Falklands-style yomping.  There’s lots of snow in Good King Wenceslas, but that, of course, is set in Bohemia (by St Agnes’ fountain, which presumably had frozen up); however, I’m sure that lots of people carry that idea of ‘deep and crisp and even’ across to their mental crib scene.

crib scne inside initial
Definitely a bit of snow, but just lying tidily on the ground
Victorian Christmases always had snow (thank you, Mr Dickens)

It just goes to show how we take our own experience and apply it.  We get cold going to church at Christmas, so Joseph and Mary must have found it cold travelling to Bethlehem.  Brueghel the Elder’s depiction of Joseph and Mary arriving for the census is clearly set in a Flemish winter, and makes you shiver.   A lot of the serious snow is in Victorian carols, and this is the period when so much of the Christmas myth (as opposed to the Bible events) was set into the modern collective consciousness.  See amid the winter’s snow, In the bleak midwinter, both Victorian carols, show clearly  how North European weather has been imposed onto the Middle Eastern narrative. Past three o’clock, despite appearances, is a Victorian piece of writing, with its ‘cold and frosty morning’.  As if to prove my point, this morning in a charity shop, I spotted a snow globe where the scene was a little crib.  I nearly photographed it, but it was such an ugly little object that I couldn’t bring myself to.  Here’s a different snowy crib, though.

back view of angel covered in snow
Flying must be tough when your wings are full of snow
What about round little Bethlehem, long, long ago?

I wanted to look at what the weather might really have been like, but of course there are no weather records that stretch back so far.  Even combining any available evidence and speculation, we can see that there have been fluctuations anyway over the last two or three thousand years.  Nowadays the average winter temperature in the Holy Land is around 7 degrees C – cold, but not snowy.  Then I realised that the best account of what the weather used to be like is in the psalms.  What do they say about the weather?

Evidence of snow in the Psalms

There is almost no snow in the Psalms, and it’s there for its qualities rather than as a real presence : ‘Wash me, I shall be whiter than snow ‘ (Ps 50/51), jewels flashing ‘like snow on Mount Zalmon’ (Ps 67/68), though real snow is mentioned as falling ‘white as wool’ (Ps 147/148) and ‘hail, snow and mist’ are called upon to praise God in Psalm 148/149.  There is rain by the bucketload, storms, earthquakes, hurricanes and other mighty winds, and I’ve already talked about clouds in a previous blog. God hurls down hailstones like crumbs and hoarfrost like ashes in Psalm 147/148, but that’s all the psalm references to actual wintry weather.  Snow turns up occasionally in other books of the Old Testament, and even in the Gospels (the Transfiguration, Matt 23.3 and Mark 9.3),  where it is invoked to show how dazzlingly white Jesus’ garments were.  So everyone hearing the narrative knows about snow and knows what it looks like, otherwise the comparisons wouldn’t work, but it’s not a frequent occurrence as it is in (say) Northumberland in the winter months.

Metaphorical snow still very chilly

T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi (that’s a brilliant link where you can actually hear him reading it aloud) makes it clear what is actually going on here.  The hard snowy journey is a metaphor for life and a difficult quest, but Eliot keeps the snow to the mountains, and shows Bethlehem as below the snowline.  I think this is probably because he was thinking of it as a real geographical place rather than a Christmas card picture.  Even among the Victorian hymn-writers,  the snow at Christmas time is a version of the pathetic fallacy and shows how hard and cold our hearts are before the Christchild comes to soften them.  So the emphasis is on the ‘bleak’ rather than on the midwinter.

crib scene with naked baby
This can’t be real snow or the poor baby would be covered

You really notice how European our imagery is if you happen to spend Christmas near the Equator or in the southern hemisphere.  It isn’t just that you can’t really appreciate Christmas dinner when it’s hot outside; nearly all the familiar songs feel out of place and time.  You can see how Christmas is laid over older celebrations; it’s impossible to imagine celebrating Yule or Saturnalia in the Antipodes (unless you’re making a point).

All out of darkness we have light

The other major image used in carols is of darkness and Christ coming as a light (John 1 of course, Isaiah ditto, but lots of other places too), and certainly in the Northern hemisphere, dark and winter are closely related.  In many older carols, the idea of light breaking through darkness is more common than the snow topos (How brightly shines the morning star, Angels from the realms of glory, Silent Night (‘Son of God, love’s pure light /Radiant beams from thy holy face’), the ‘bright sky’ in Away in a Manger, and there’s a lovely old carol called O Babe divine (described as ‘Old English adapted’), where the image keeps repeating : ‘O holy child, my dim heart’s gleam,/O brighter than the sunny beam! […..]O prince of peace, my dark soul’s light! /Thou art a day without a night’.  This neatly carries us back to another carol, As with gladness men of old, which takes its central image of the last verse straight out of Revelation : ‘In the heavenly country bright need they no created light, /Thou its light, its joy, its crown, thou its sun which goes not down’.

Snow’s significance can easily melt away

Our associations are precious and important to us, and of course we can picture Christmas any way we like.  We deck our mental cribs with holly and have robins hopping around outside them as they do in our own garden because we want Jesus to be as close to us as possible.  The event was a real historical event, but what is important for me is how it affects me here and now.  It doesn’t matter whether there was real snow at the first Christmas, but whether we celebrate it nowadays with warm hearts, which is exactly the point which Christina Rosetti is making in In the bleak midwinter.  The danger for us all is brilliantly encapsulated by C.S. Lewis.  A fallen world without hope is ‘always winter and never Christmas’.  That’s a terrible thought, and thank God, we don’t need to worry about it.  Real tidings of comfort and joy.  Merry Christmas.

decorated mediaeval hedghog
Christmas decorations: everyone can do their bit

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

 

 

The Gentle Guide to my Christmas music

A great and mighty wonder….every year
crib scene in illuminated capital
Sing choirs of angels….and everyone else too

Christmas is another all-nighter for many choirs, like Easter but a slightly different shape.  Instead of the enormous Easter Vigil followed by a day Mass on the Sunday, at Christmas we have a sequence of four (shorter) Masses spread through the night and into the next day. Many, possibly even most, parishes kickstart the celebrations at Christmas with half an hour of carols before Midnight Mass (which doesn’t have to be at midnight any more). So that’s a lot of singing, at a time of year when many people already have sore throats and churches are cold.

Advent and the run-up to Christmas
Female charioteer with four in hand
Me keeping the Advent Alleluias together; the black horse is actually dark pink for Gaudete Sunday

By the time you get to Christmas, you’ve already sung four weeks’ worth of Advent music.  Advent is much shorter than Lent, and the emphasis is on positive waiting and anticipation rather than moving slowly forward through anticipation and dread to new hope, so it feels completely different, and I take my cue from traditional Christmas music to get the mood right.  Even people who don’t sing normally will sing carols, so simple tuneful music is what I am trying to offer, hoping to persuade them to carry on singing once they have started with a carol verse or two….

Christmas music rooted in carols
Volmar having a vord with a recalcitrant Advent Alleluia

A lot of carols (and folk music in general) are in 3/4, and it’s easy to use this time signature to encourage forward movement, so the Advent Alleluia is in 3/4 rather than the more usual 4/4. It’s got some bounce in the rhythm, but the tune is simple, and in the middle of where most people’s voices are comfortable.   This is important, and I do try to think about where people’s voices naturally fall, mainly so that they can’t use that as a cop-out for not singing.

Deck the church with Christmas Alleluias

As soon as we move into the Christmas music, we have the Christmas Alleluia instead of the Advent one.  If you haven’t tried it with the descant, please do, because it’s really easy, but it sounds full of joy and excitement.  People have been singing the Advent Alleluias for four weeks, so they will sit up and pay attention when you give them a new one to sing.  The Christmas Alleluia is meant to sound like a peal of bells, like the choruses in Angels we have heard on high and Ding dong merrily.

Christmas, -mas, -mas, -mas
1 : the Vigil Mass

There are four Masses available for singing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  The first is in the evening of Christmas Eve.  It is often regarded as especially for children (and people who don’t want to be out too late in the cold).  Our parish uses it as the Christingle Mass.  It’s an interesting set of music to arrange, because it needs to be jubilant and celebratory while not jumping the gun, as Jesus isn’t born yet.  So that knocks out nearly all carols, which should wait until the next day, as there’s no procession to the crib or similar.  But by now the anticipation is at fever-pitch, we all know what’s going to happen, and the excitement catches in your throat, just like when labour starts and you’re thinking that you are finally going to meet this small person that no-one has been able to hold yet except you.

The psalm for the Vigil (88/89) is joyful but still measured, talking about the history that has led up to this point and the covenant which is being fulfilled.  It almost feels like checking the paperwork at the hospital.  It’s still a question of sorting things out before the baby arrives, making sure everything is ready.   The Alleluia keeps the emphasis of this Vigil Mass clear, putting the stress on its first word  ‘Tomorrow…’, but the excitement should be fizzing and the joy is only a step away.

I do not know why the Canadians have alternative Responses for all the Christmas psalms, but I think it must be because they are in the middle of a revision of their Lectionary, so I’ve just set them, and the choices are up to you.

2 : Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass itself is a marathon, starting (usually) with half an hour of carols.  Some of our most beloved carols are old, some are difficult to sing, several are pitched to make it easier to play the accompaniment than to reach the top notes, and many members of the choir may have colds.  I have tried not to give you too many high notes to worry about, because descants and Hark the herald take quite a toll on the soprano line.  But we need to express joy here, and the music is trying to make this easy to do.  The psalms helpfully equate joy with singing, so we have a head start.

mediaeval animals playing pump organ
If the people don’t sing, even the animals will have to take to the orgen

The Midnight Mass psalm has a Response drawn from elsewhere in the Bible, which doesn’t always work, but does here, as it’s our old friend Psalm 95/96, but with a very careful selction of verses.  The psalm starts by encouraging everyone to sing, and then extends the list of the everyone to include the sea, the land and even the trees to shout for joy because – and then the Response explains the reason : Today a saviour has been born to us; he is Christ the Lord.

Angel bring Christmas message to shepherds
Good news is even better when you sing it

One of the Canadian Responses fits exactly to the tune of the chorus in Adeste fideles, so I had to write another psalm setting so that you could have a 4/4 Response.  So there you have two quite different options, because the other version of the words is irresistibly 3/4 and like other carols.  Adeste is originally a Latin hymn, rather than a carol, so a bit more staid and less skippy, but the other versions should all rollick along.  This is great news, this is exciting!

To add to the fun, the strophes are different lengths, which means I can’t compress the UK and the OZ versions, so you have lots of pages.  At least there are usually lots of people around in the choir loft on Christmas night, so you should be able to find someone to turn over for you if you are playing the organ.  The US and CAN versions have been slightly regularised, so there are compacts of those, but I can’t fit the last Response on to the compact sheets, so make sure you check for Recorder trills or twiddles on the non-compact form for the last verse, because it’s a shame to leave them out.

3 :  Mass at Dawn

This Mass always seems slightly like a poor relation.  It’s for the people who couldn’t come to the previous Masses and who can’t be there for the later morning one (after the stockings and breakfast and putting the turkey on).  It’s a shorter psalm, the next one in the Psalter, as it happens (96/97), and the readings are short too, because this Mass is for the noble souls who have to be on duty in hospitals or fire stations or are helping other people at Christmas.   I don’t want you to miss out on the joy and the excitement, and I think this is a great psalm even if it only has two verses.   But the singers in the choir loft may be feeling a bit weary, so there’s no pyrotechnics and it doesn’t go very high; just a simple bouncy tune reminiscent of a Christmas carol.

Depending on your translation, you have either ‘islands’ or ‘coastlands’ rejoicing in this psalm.  I like to think of the islands picking up their frothy petticoats and twirling away to the dance in the music in honour of the event.

4 :  Mass during the Day

And here’s the last Mass of the day, after which choirs and celebrants are all off-duty and there’s only little things like getting the Christmas dinner to worry about.  This Mass tends to have the most relaxed atmosphere, because the baby has been born and the celebrations have already started.  We move on to the next psalm in the Psalter (97/98), which again tells us to sing and ring out our joy.

It’s interesting to compare this psalm with the one at Midnight Mass.  They are both invitations to sing to the Lord, but the tense has shifted in the day psalm.  Now we are specifically singing about what the Lord has (just) done.  It’s all solid immediate past tenses: he has done wondrous deeds, he has won victory, he has made known his salvation, he has revealed his justice, he has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness, and all the ends of the earth have seen it.  Everything has been sorted out.   This psalm is pure celebration, and keeps repeating its imperatives : in four verses, we are told to sing five times, and even encouraged to take up specific instruments, melodious but loud.  We need brass, for ‘trumpets and the sound of the horn’ are demanded, and quite right too.  Enjoy the moment.  There’s (another) wonderful U.A.Fanthorpe poem  BC:AD  about this exact moment.

Refreshing the familiar

All the psalms for Christmas are familiar ones, which recur throughout the year, because they are calls to praise.  The Response and the Alleluia verses are often the only part that is specifically Christmassy.  This is good because it helps us to remember that we are meant to be singing these joyful words all year round, but they should have a fresh immediacy at the Christmas masses.  It’s happening right now, this event which causes us to rejoice for all the rest of the year, this event which makes our hearts dance as we sing the Christmas music.  Remember that carols were dances as well as songs, and sing them that way.  Merry Christmas.

mediaeval dancers in a line
Christmas dancing, about 1300 AD. Note the little hop : that’s my counter-rhythm!

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.