In many parts of the English speaking world Christmas begins with decorations hoisted and songs blaring out in shopping centres from late November. The weeks leading up to Christmas are party time and often Christmas is over by 26th December with the well organized dismantling the tree on this day. It is followed by a burst of festivity on New Year’s Eve and then it is all over for another year.
While customs vary through time and across cultures, there are some central elements to the Christian celebration of Christmas. Many of these elements are reflected in the music played during the season, some of the most beautiful are centuries old.
Advent precedes Christmas but it is not itself Christmas. It is the period of waiting in preparation for the birth of Christ and looks towards the Second Coming. In the Middle Ages it was also a period of fast. One of the most beautiful of the Advent hymns is Veni, Veni Emmanuel
Traditionally Christmas began on the evening of the 24th of December, Christmas Eve. There are many, many songs which celebrate the Christmas story, my favourite though is God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.
Following on from Christmas Day are a series of feast often now forgotten.
The 26th is the feast of St Stephen the first Christian martyr. Eia, Martyr Stephane is a 15th century hymn.
The haunting Coventry Carol recalls the slaughter of the Holy Innocents which is commemorated on 28th December.
There are quite a number of feasts in this period including those of St. John the Evangelist (27th December), St. Thomas Becket, Martyr (29th), St Egwin of Evesham, (30th), the Solemnity of Mary, on New Year’s Day, St. Basil the Great (2nd January) among others, culminating with the Feast of the Epiphany on 6th January which commemorates the visit of the Magi and so Christ’s physical manifestation to the Gentiles. The 19th century carol, We Three Kings of Orient Are, recalls this feast.
There are many beautiful Christmas carols, some which were unique to geographical locations. No doubt there were many more than those we know to have survived. Two particularly beautiful examples are the Wexford Carol and the Sussex Carol.
For me the essence of Christmas is captured in these traditional hymns and carols. They carry the joy and exuberance of the feast as well as the theology and the foreshadowing of the Passion. Finally, here are two more of my favourites (how many favourites is one person allowed?)
Wishing you all the blessings of Christmas and a wonderful year ahead.