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Western Christmas Carols and the Orthodox Liturgy

Celtic Cross

By “Orthodoxy and the World”
Dec 24, 2010

Christmas carols have a deep connection to the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord in western countries, but today one can meet different attitudes toward them among clergy. There are parishes where a priest refuses to use them during or after the Nativity service, and there are priests who allow them during the service as a part of western culture. Is there a place or not for Christmas carols in Orthodox churches? This question we asked several priest.

Fr Panayiotis Papageorgiou 01

Fr. Panayiotis Papageorgiou, rector of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, Marietta, Georgia, USA

At a time when Christianity is under attack in most countries in the West, we need to consider what tools, cultural and spiritual, are available to us for the strengthening of our faithful. There are parishes that have a strong tradition of using the Christmas carols and we should not to stop them, if that is helping to touch hearts and win souls. Of course, one should choose from among the carols the ones which are biblical, spiritual and theological. I do not believe, however, that any of these carols should be sung during the Liturgical Services or replace the hymns assigned by the Typikon of the Church, but they can be sung after the dismissal of the Liturgy where such demand is made by the faithful. I also do not believe that it is necessary to introduce the Christmas carols in a parish where there is no such tradition of using them and there is no demand from the congregation. The parish pastor should exercise discernment with a prayerful heart and mind before making any changes either in favor or against using Christmas carols in his parish.

Fr Geoffrey Korz

Fr. Geoffrey Korz, rector of All Saints of North America Orthodox Church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (www.asna.ca)

For Orthodox Christians in the western world, Christmas can create something of an identity crisis. While it is difficult enough to extricate a personal schedule from multiple pilgrimages to the shopping mall (a distinctly un-Christian aspect of modern Christmas), it is sometimes far more difficult to know what to make of Christmas carols and songs, and their appropriate place in the life of an Orthodox Christian.

None of us live in a vacuum. As such, the varied music of our culture almost inevitably finds its way into our lives, our memory, and our heart. Orthodox liturgical music represents the central place of music in the life of any faithful Orthodox Christian: it is music suited for the right worship of God, and comes to us through the life and experience of the countless holy ones that make up the communion of saints.

For this reason, Christmas carols and songs certainly do not have a place in the liturgical life of the Church: most are not dogmatically helpful or clear, and they have never formed a part of the hymnody used by the saints of the Church, as it has been given to the faithful.

The question for Orthodox Christians is, what is the place of Christmas music in life outside liturgical services? Since most people – including most Orthodox Christians – listen to, sing, or play some type of music beyond liturgical music, this becomes a question of which carols are appropriate.

Most of the Christmas carols that have come to us in the English language date from the 1700s and 1800s, and offer narratives of the Gospel accounts of the Nativity of Christ. While these usually use archaic English in a creative way, they are certainly faithful witnesses to the Gospel. We can think of favourites such as Angels We Have Heard on High, Away in a Manger, or God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, which raise little question in their suitability for an after-supper carol sing in an Orthodox home. Other traditional carols convey the story of events close to the Nativity of the Lord: the traditional Advent Latin melody O come, O come, Emmanuel dates to near pre-Schism times (the early 12th century, in this case), and can almost be described as a song from an Orthodox culture. The Coventry Carol tells the tragic tale of the massacre of the innocents described in the second chapter of Saint Matthew. The Twelve Days of Christmas provides a catechism of Roman Catholic origin that counters iconoclasm during the Protestant era in England. The symbolism of the carol is still useful today to teach Orthodox children (and adults) about the four “calling birds” of the Evangelists, and the three “golden rings” of the Holy Trinity.

Some carols offer poetic allusions to Gospel or other Scriptures. Songs such as Ding Dong Merrily on HighWe Three KingsJoy to the World, and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night, are artistic folk songs of their time, and warmly tell parts of the Nativity story. Although not written by an Orthodox Christian, The Holly and the Ivy offers a Christian understanding of pagan symbols that would be familiar to many Slavic Orthodox. Even the famous carol, Hark The Herald Angels Sing by the Protestant preacher Charles Wesley, provides poetry relating to the Gospel in a way that does not contradict an Orthodox understanding.

Historical fiction such as The Little Drummer Boy offers a creative expression of a simple encounter with Christ. Similarly, Christmastime tales of the life of an Orthodox saint like Good King Wenceslas (who died as a martyr at the hands of his pagan brother Boleslaus) provide a small sample of the lives of the saints which faithful Orthodox Christians should read each day.

Some carols have become popular because of a certain sentimentality they elicit, rather than their doctrinal helpfulness. Songs such as O Holy Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, and “What Child Is This?” may not have much content that could be questioned by Orthodox Christians, yet their sentimental tone seems to lack something of an Orthodox spirit. The enjoyment of Christmas carols certainly must go beyond mere musical critique, however, carols like these were clearly born out a very emotional world quite foreign to the world of the Orthodox Church.

Some “carols” are actually openly heretical. The 19th century song, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, is a case in point. Written by a Unitarian minister, the song explicitly sets out to popularize the idea that one can celebrate Christmas without the reality that God took on human flesh, expunging any supernatural references, and making a “miracle” out of the birth of a “great man.” The lesser known Seven Joys of Mary articulates a Roman Catholic teaching that includes the “crowning” of the Mother of God in Heaven, a teaching that emerged in the Latin west long after her departure from the Orthodox Church.

There are other, particular cases. The 1962 song, Do You Hear What I Hear? , was allegedly written as an appeal for the de-escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, using the imagery of the Nativity story being proclaimed by people of high and low estate. Secular wintertime folk songs, such as Deck the Halls and Jingle Bells, really cannot be called Christmas carols, since they are made up of pure Victorian nostalgia, and have no Christian content. Silly, modern secular songs such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Rocking Around the Christmas Tree have little at all to do with Christmas, and even less to do with aspiring to emulate the best offerings of western civilization.

In his letter to the Philippians (4:8), Saint Paul tells us to hold to everything that is good. A wonderful variety of Christmas carols that affirm the truth of the Gospel, and the Nativity of Christ, have come down to us in the English language, and are entirely suitable for use in the homes of Orthodox Christians. At the same time, silly songs or those that teach false things, should not really be confused with Christmas, a feast that celebrates God’s great gift to the world, in the incarnation of His Son.

Apart from the Resurrection, this is the single greatest event in human history, and it gives us our very identity as Christians – and identity which solves any identity crisis we might ever face in our lives. We should celebrate it at every opportunity.

Fr Chrysostom MacDonnell

Fr. Chrysostom MacDonnell, priest of St. Dunstan’s Antiochian Orthodox Church Bournemouth-Poole, Dorset,  England

The question has been raised as to whether Christmas Carols or indeed, other metrical hymns from the Western traditions, might be used during services in the Orthodox Church. In answering this, I should like to start with my own congregation in Dorset, England. The question, in fact, has never been raised among us. Very few of our regular congregation have actually come to Orthodox Christianity from heterodox churches, most having been brought up in Orthodox countries or, at least, an Orthodox culture. However, with an eye to our future mission, we are certainly aiming to bring home Western Christians, back to their spiritual roots. In other contexts I have heard the idea discussed that the use of the familiar might be a worthy tactic to assist, (perhaps only for as long as necessary) the cultural transition between rites.

Let us establish from the start that borrowing has often been a feature of liturgical development. Liturgical scholars have, for example, noted the influence of the fourth century liturgy of Jerusalem on the structure of the Holy Week rites, both East and West; Antiochene Rite played a similar role, shaping many of the ceremonies still observed throughout the Byzantine Rite for the same period up to Pascha. Sharing has always been done but, usually, the local religious ethos has reshaped the forms. If, however, we look at the history of Christmas carols in Western Christianity, we can observe that, in fact, they were para-liturgical, that is, used outside the main services, usually as part of a continuing folk celebration of the particular feast.

The point here is that the Roman rite, like the Byzantine, had no provision for optional hymns as such; it had its introits and graduals, sequences and scriptural (usually psalmic) verses, just as we have our Antiphons, Prokeimena, Troparia and Kontakia, Megalanaria etc. Apart from the traditional Latin (often Ambrosian) hymns in the Liturgy of the Hours, there appears to have been no official sanction for metrical hymnody in the Western Eucharist until quite late. I presume that this has come into the modern Roman rite from the influence of Protestantism, where popular hymn singing replaced traditional liturgical texts with more subjective, poetic compositions, designed to appeal to the emotions first of all.

In mediaeval England, popular Christmas carols were sung at ‘parish ales’ after the Mass on certain festivals, involving community singing and the drinking of beer. But these were strictly extra-liturgical and an extension into folk culture of the Christian faith. In other words, carol singing was part of the enculturation of Christianity and the overall process of evangelisation.

Whether this can find a place in Orthodox practice is a moot point. The singing of composed hymns, rather than verses from the Scriptures, was controversial in the early centuries of Christianity. Arians composed popular songs and used them to demonstrate their heresy. This was why St. John Chrysostom organised processions, chanting litanies through the streets of Antioch in opposition. The difficulty we have here, though, is that of fitting different cultural forms, oriental and occidental together. It is Time itself, of course, which enculturates, almost hallows, liturgical forms but to make fusions of two different forms must, at best, be awkward. Each rite has its own integrity or genius so that the use of rhyming metre and Western musical forms must appear out of place.

Many Western carols are often perfectly Orthodox, doctrinally, bearing witness to and celebrating the obvious themes of the Nativity. The ancient Latin hymns such as Veni, Redemptor gentium (by St. Ambrose) or A solis ortus cardine (by Caelius Sedulius), are clearly suitable. There is also A Great and Mighty Wonder, which itself is a metrical version from the Greek, originally written by St. Germanus (634-734):

                      The Word becomes incarnate

                         And yet remain on high!

                      And Cherubim sing anthems

                         To shepherds from the sky.

I would also cite Thomas Pestel’s seventeenth century carol:

                      Behold the great Creator makes

                         Himself a house of clay

                      A robe of virgin flesh he takes

                         Which he will wear for ay.

 

This theme of the Incarnation is similarly spelled out in Hark the herald angels sing (Charles Wesley 1707-88):

                      Late in time behold him come

                         Offspring of a Virgin’s womb!

                      Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,

                         Hailed the incarnate Deity!

 

My final example is from O Come all ye faithful, originally composed in Latin, (Adeste Fideles 18th Cent.) using ideas from the Nicene Creed:

                      God of God

                         Light of light,

                      Lo! He abhors not the Virgin’s womb;

                         Very God,

                           Begotten, not created.

 

Amongst others which are suitable, would be Of the Father’s heart begotten (by Prudentius 348-413) or the haunting Coventry Carol with its wonderfully dissonant harmonies, a reflection upon the slaughter of the innocents.

Bearing this in mind, we might regard carols more positively, perhaps where appropriate, finding a place for them in parish life. I would suggest, therefore, that the following principles be observed:

  • That they be used either at social gatherings or straight after the Liturgy, once ended.
  • That only liturgically and doctrinally sound carols be used.
  • That the sentimental, non-doctrinal carols not be used in the church itself.
  • That if carols were to be used in any liturgical sense at all, they would be better sung after the dismissal, perhaps at the distribution of the Antidoron.
  • That space, naturally, be made for carols and folk songs from historically Orthodox lands as well.

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