Supporting actors

The vast majority of Christmas songs focus on the birth of Christ, and rightfully should. However, there are a few that tell of others involved in the Christmas story; the supporting actors.  This is the first of two posts about these other participants.

The angel Gabriel

Luke 1:26-33

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“Gabriel’s Message” or “The angel Gabriel from heaven came” (Basque: Birjina gaztetto bat zegoen) is a Basque Christmas folk carol about the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary by the archangel Gabriel that she would become the mother of Jesus Christ the Son of God. (Wikipedia)  Sting resurrected this song in 1987 when he recorded it as part of a Christmas CD to raise money for Special Olympics. Here is an a cappella version for those who like hearing how it may have sounded when it was written.

The Angel Gabriel from Heaven came
His wings as drifted snow
His eyes as flame
“All Hail!” said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary,”
“Most Highly Favoured Lady,”
Gloria!

“For know a Blessed Mother thou shalt be,
All generations laud and honour thee
Thy Son shall be Immanuel, by seers foretold
Most highly favoured Lady,”
Gloria!

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head;
“To me, be as it pleaseth God,” she said.
“My soul shall laud and magnify His holy Name”
Most highly favoured Lady!
Gloria!

Of her Immanuel, the Christ was born,
In Bethlehem, all on a Christmas morn.
And everyone throughout the world will ever say,
“Most highly favoured lady!”
Gloria!

Mary

Luke:34-38

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most Highwill overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song) by Amy Grant is a single from her 1992 album Home for Christmas. It was featured on the soundtrack to The Nativity Story.

I have traveled many moonless nights
Cold and weary with a babe inside
And I wonder what I’ve done
Holy Father, You have come
And chosen me now to carry Your Son

I am waiting in a silent prayer
I am frightened by the load I bear
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now, be with me now

Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven

Do you wonder as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of Your plan
Help me be strong, help me be, help me

Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy

Breath of Heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness
Pour over me Your holiness for You are holy
Breath of Heaven, Breath of Heaven
Breath of Heaven

Joseph

Luke 2:1–7

2 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while[a] Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

Joseph’s Lullaby is a song written and recorded by Christian rock band MercyMe. It was released as a single from the band’s 2005 album The Christmas Sessions.

Next time: Supporting Actors II

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Are all Christmas carols carols?

The word carol comes from the old French word carole, a circle dance accompanied by singers. Carols were very popular as dance songs during the 12 through 14th centuries, after which their use expanded as songs sung during festivals.  Because they are dance songs many Christmas carols are in 3/4 time. In the early years of caroling it was common to have one lead singer surrounded by dancers who sang the accompaniment. Traditional attributes of a Christmas carol include celebrating Christ’s birth, alternating verses and chorus, and danceable music. Over time people began referring to any Christmas song as a Christmas carol, even though it may not contain these traditional characteristics. Are all Christmas carols carols? I’ll let you decide.

The History of Christmas Carols

Carols were first sung in Europe thousands of years ago, but these were not Christmas Carols. They were pagan songs, sung at the Winter Solstice celebrations as people danced round stone circles (The word carol originally meant to dance to something). The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, usually taking place around the 22nd December. The word Carol actually means dance or a song of praise and joy! Carols used to be written and sung during all four seasons, but only the tradition of singing them at Christmas has really survived.

Early Christians took over the pagan solstice celebrations for Christmas and gave people Christian songs to sing instead of pagan ones. In AD 129, a Roman Bishop said that a song called “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Another famous early Christmas Hymn was written in 760AD, by Comas of Jerusalem, for the Greek Orthodox Church. Soon after this many composers all over Europe started to write ‘Christmas carols’. However, not many people liked them as they were all written and sung in Latin, a language that the normal people couldn’t understand. By the time of the Middles Ages (the 1200s), most people had lost interest in celebrating Christmas altogether.

This was changed by St. Francis of Assisi when, in 1223, he started his Nativity Plays in Italy. The people in the plays sang songs or ‘canticles’ that told the story during the plays. Sometimes, the choruses of these new carols were in Latin; but normally they were all in a language that the people watching the play could understand and join in! The new carols spread to France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.

The earliest carol, like this, was written in 1410. Sadly only a very small fragment of it still exists. The carol was about Mary and Jesus meeting different people in Bethlehem. Most Carols from this time and the Elizabethan period are untrue stories, very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family and were seen as entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung in homes rather than in churches! Traveling singers or Minstrels started singing these carols and the words were changed for the local people wherever they were traveling. One carols that changed like this is ‘I Saw Three Ships’.

When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans came to power in England in 1647, the celebration of Christmas and singing carols was stopped. However, the carols survived as people still sang them in secret. Carols remained mainly unsung until Victorian times, when two men called William Sandys and Davis Gilbert collected lots of old Christmas music from villages in England.

Before carol singing in public became popular, there were sometimes official carol singers called ‘Waits’. These were bands of people led by important local leaders (such as council leaders) who had the only power in the towns and villages to take money from the public (if others did this, they were sometimes charged as beggars!). They were called ‘Waits’ because they only sang on Christmas Eve (This was sometimes known as ‘watchnight’ or ‘waitnight’ because of the shepherds were watching their sheep when the angels appeared to them.), when the Christmas celebrations began.

Also, at this time, many orchestras and choirs were being set up in the cities of England and people wanted Christmas songs to sing, so carols once again became popular. Many new carols, such as ‘Good King Wenceslas’, were also written in the Victorian period.

Good King Wenceslas” is a popular Christmas carol that tells a story of a king braving harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephan (December 26, the day after Christmas). (Wikipedia)

New carols services were created and became popular, as did the custom of singing carols in the streets. Both of these customs are still popular today! One of the most popular types of Carols services are Carols by Candlelight services. At this service, the church is only lit by candlelight and it feels very Christmassy! Carols by Candlelight services are held in countries all over the world.

The most famous type of Carol Service might be a Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, where carols and Bible readings tell the Christmas Story.

via The History of Christmas Carols — Christmas Customs and Traditions — whychristmas?com.

Next Time: Supporting actors

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Wassup With Wassailing?

As traditional and familiar as most any English Christmas carol, the song is among the season’s more anachronistic, an evocation of a holiday custom that pretty much puzzles modern celebrants: wassailing.

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a happy New Year.

Wassailing? What’s wassailing?

The term has evolved in English for more than a millennium, from its origins as a simple greeting, to its use as a toast in ritualized drinking, to its absorption into holiday customs rooted in notions of social propriety and the intentional suspension thereof.

The text of the carol employs noun and verb forms of “wassail,” a word derived from the Old Norse ves heil and the Old English was hál and meaning Continue reading

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