Have yourself a medieval Christmas

My daughter, who is eight, tells me that her favorite Christmas carol is “Riu, Riu Chiu,” a half-millenium-old Spanish song about the perfection of the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus. With vivid lyrics about furious wolves and innocent lambs, accompanied by whatever handheld percussion happens to be available, it at once explains the theology of both the incarnation and the immaculate conception (centuries before even the Catholic Church accepted the latter) and gets everyone off their feet to dance and spin — if, hearing it today, they dare dance to a Christmas carol. An eight year-old dares, because she happily doesn’t see the contradiction between devotion and dancing. And I’m realizing that she’s right.

Recently I was listening to another ancient carol and trying to explain it to my daughter. It begins with these lines:

This is the truth sent from heaven above,
The truth of God, the God of love;
Therefore don’t turn me from your door,
But hearken all both rich and poor.

The verses that follow tell of the creation of mankind, the fall of Adam and Eve, the promise of God’s redeeming grace, and the birth and teachings of Jesus. The text is strictly Biblical; it’s a poetic reading of standard Western Christian theology. But this is no church hymn — despite, as I had to protest, the way it is sung in my recording. The third line makes clear its purpose, which is to be sung as a carol, door to door, and to imagine it in that context is to rethink it completely. Door-to-door singing is not the performance of a well-tempered choir; its good intentions and hearty spirit have to cover a pronounced lack of precise tuning and time. The air being cold and the carolers’ throats dry after such vigorous use, at the end of each performance the householder is supposed to offer refreshment — alcoholic refreshment, in the form of wassail, spiced wine, punch — the effect of which is to enhance the singers’ good intentions and hearty spirit but not their precision, and so what may begin as a meekly offered song of thanks and praise is likely to end as a rousing, boisterous chorus. Not that carolers switched to “Jingle Bells,” but that verses like this gained a little gusto:

O seek! O seek of God above
That saving faith that works by love!
And, if he’s pleased to grant thee this,
Thou’rt sure to have eternal bliss.

This doesn’t have to be incompatible with drunken revelry. One ought to be happy about the prospect of eternal bliss, yes? We’re all such a bunch of screwups, aren’t we, but it’s going to be all right in the end? I’d drink to that.

That’s the paradox of Christmas, and always has been. It’s a deeply serious religious observation, celebrating the incarnation of the One True God and the promise of humanity’s redemption from sin, heavy stuff indeed, grafted onto a pagan festival, a desperately necessary celebration of light and warmth in the darkest, coldest nights of the year. The two origins don’t necessarily contradict, and in fact for much of the premodern era, at least, they seem to have been happily married. Quite a few Christmas songs from the late medieval and Renaissance Europe are obviously intended as dances; listening to them it’s almost impossible not to move to the music — and yet we’re not rocking around the Christmas tree; the lyrics are about the baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary, the miracle of the incarnation, the three in one. There’s even a traditional English song sung as Jesus, in the first person, telling his autobiography from birth (“thus was I knit to man’s nature”) to death, descent into hell, and resurrection, all in the form of a dance: “This have I done for my true love,” and the song’s title and first line are “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.”

medieval dancers
Dancers kick up their heels in an illustration from a 13th-century Bible.

Then along came the Puritans and ruined everything. Religion must be solemn; frivolity would be an offense to God. Christmas had to go. Ironically for a sect based on the individual’s relationship with and faith in God, they couldn’t show enough faith in believers to risk permitting the wrong outward forms of devotion, and so for periods in both Old and New England Christmas was banned. It continued in most of the rest of Europe, but a great many English traditions were lost, and in both England and later most of the United States, there was a gap of centuries in the meaningful celebration of Christmas. Maybe at that point Christmas should have been allowed to die a peaceful death, but, of course, it wasn’t.

When the Victorians revived it, borrowing willy nilly from Germanic traditions as well as their own, they couldn’t bring themselves to take too seriously the miracle of the incarnation; miracles were everywhere being replaced by machines. By then Puritan sternness, too, had lost its spiritual underpinnings, leaving only a singular devotion to business: Ebenezer Scrooge is what the Puritans had come to, their Calvinist work ethic devolved into parsimony and meanness. Dickens replaced the miracle of the incarnation with a hardheaded social gospel: Scrooge is not merely a miser; he openly condemns the poor. “Are there no prisons?” he famously replies, when asked for charity; “And the union workhouses? Are they still in operation?” Told that “Many can’t go there; and many would rather die,” he growls that “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” No tidier condemnation of the “one percent” in its own words has ever been penned.

It’s true that, as Dickens believed, a generous spirit would both “keep Christmas” in the pleasantly frivolous way of Scrooge’s nephew and do his level best to drive out ignorance and want, but the two don’t keep good company at a festival. The announcement of the word made flesh in the meanest of estates is a joyful promise of salvation, but the pinched and twisted figures beneath the Spirit’s cloak are dreadful reminders of earthly suffering. The former was a promise (if you’ll forgive the journalistic allusion) to the ninety-nine percent, the latter an admonishment that most of us are, in our own way, one-percenters. It’s a sobering thought, not a prelude to fun and games.

That left the mannered frivolity of parlor games and gift exchanges. We follow the Victorians’ lead today, in ways ever more frivolous and ever more mannered (in the sense of being scripted, if not in that of being polite). We throw “the season” a bone by making perhaps a few year-end donations to charity to ring up the tax savings. I was recently treated to a version of A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge’s famous lines about the poor were deleted and he was made to be merely a grump, the Grinch without the green makeup, the better not to spoil our holidays. You can, the message is — no, you should be frivolous, simply for its own sake. Not to be frivolous makes you a Grinch, a Scrooge, a Puritan.

Revelry may lift our spirits, but it needs have spirits to lift. Revelry is mere hot air, but it’s mere hot air that lofts a balloon — and yet without the structure and limits of the balloon, that hot air dissipates on the wind. A celebration of the sacred that verges into drunken reel isn’t going to send anybody to hell; it’s the guy who pulls his hat down around his ears and sets out to get drunk we need to worry about. Joy to the world, the radio sings while we fill our shopping carts, but joy needs spirit and revelry, both — revelry to give it life and spirit to give it direction.

So give me revelry, by all means, give me joy, but spare me the mannered frivolity. The last of my Methodist upbringing cringes in the corner of my soul to hear it, but I’m with the kid: Give me a rollicking medieval dance about Baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary and — I’ll add, for myself — a good mug of spiced wine. Stuff Santa back up the chimney. Christ is born in Bethlehem, and I’ll gladly drink to that.