Advent Calendar Day 23: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

When it comes to proper Christmas music, truth told, I’ve little patience for most of what’s less than a century old.  As Vlad III said, “a house cannot be made livable in a day, and after all how few days go to make a century!”  For a piece of music to become lived-in, for the sound and sense of it to become a part of the landscape, it takes time and weathering.  This one’s at least a couple of centuries old, from Cornwall mainly, and has been shaped and eroded by the passage of time from then and there to here and now.

This weathering can sometimes leach the pith from the meaning of things.  Noel is a word not much used outside this song, and there isn’t much need for it be used, or to trace it back through the French to Latin to find its roots.  Yet the roots are there, as in all things, and the discovery of them is a joy.

Eighteen centuries divide the song from its subject.  Shepherds and star and astrologers are all rolled up in a pretty melody for the King of Israel, but they’re legendary elements, bits of myth shaped to fit the meter and the rhyme scheme.  This song’s depiction of what happened in Bedlam that night likely bears as much of a resemblance to the facts as Le Morte d’Arthur has to the deeds of whatever warchief won the day at Badon Hill.  The deep snow surrounding those Palestinian shepherds is harder for me to believe in than the Incarnation itself.

Legend and myth have their place in the scheme of things along with fact, and the presence of a myth doesn’t negate the fact that may underlie it.  At the root of all these things, we have the birth itself.  The night when something amazing entered the world, subtly at first.

The first Noel.

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