There’s a song in the air !
There’s a star in the sky !
I have always found music delightful for relaxation. Lately I had been listening to music either streamed or downloaded from the web where we could find any kind of music we wish for. Unlike the effort to flip through our musical collections of vinyl albums, CDs, cassettes and videos for enjoying music in the conventional way, one needs only to flick some icons on the web, and the music comes pouring into the room. But how can I resist from admitting that I like music on physical formats, especially the tangible experience of holding a vinyl album and admiring the big cover art while it plays with the pops and cracks and imperfections of an old gramophone record.
A week ago we were sorting out the Christmas albums in the storage shelf where they were waiting for the right time to arrive when we would let them play their joyful melodies – to experience the pleasure they would bring us.
Waiting for Christmas! The instance reminded me of an old adage which relates that “a test for true love is a rose which has been picked on Midsummers’ Day and put away until Christmas. If it is found still fresh at Christmas, the love of the girl who plucked it and her beau will run true and flourish.” – the kind of love where the boy will kneel down and tell her that she is the sweetest, most charming and ravishing girl in the world and that he would be unable to live one more second without her! I personally know of instances like this.
But vis-à-vis our present subject, the fact remains that listening to greater part of carols and Christmas songs surely create an effect we aspire to in our house.
Christmas time is a warm and nostalgic time of a year – and Christmas, winter’s merriest tale, is all about the birth of Jesus Christ and cannot be rightly told without music. As it happens, throughout the festive season and often beyond – while we set up the Christmas tree and the Christmas crib, or hang up the stockings and decorations, or prepare the feast, or merry-make in the festive gathering, we play them as background music just for the warmth and joy of those seasonal melodies.
Those are classical instrumentations by Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, etc, or sung by choirs, or carol singers or by Earl Grant, Ray Conniff, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Brenda Lee, Nina Simone, Pierino Ronald “Perry” Como, Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Tom Jones, Fernand Gignac, Nana Mouskouri, Celine Dion, Muriel J, Jose Feliciano, Ajejandro Sanz, Andrea Bocelli, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Rod Stewart, Boney M and many others.
Behind those songs were the lyrical and musical talents of folk singers, monks, the clergy, literary and musical luminaries.
In the movies “The Alamo” (1960), “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (1962), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), the viewer might have noticed a versatile actor named Jester Hairston who was also a songwriter/composer/conductor and singer. In 1956, Hairston wrote fresh lyrics for an earlier song he had written titled “He Pone and Chocolate Tea” and attuned in calypso rhythm but was never recorded in that form.
The song with the new lyrics, later characterised as a Christmas carol, was titled “Mary’s Boy Child” and the world first heard of it when Harry Belafonte released it through his album “An Evening with Belafonte” (1956).
The song was subsequently recorded by music artists such as Jim Reeves, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Anne Murray, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, including a version in 1978 by Boney M which is still popular like most of the Boney M songs released when they were in the prime of their time.
Christmas carols lend an air to this festive season and over the years have spawned a variety of classics to make good cheer. In England of the olden days, groups went on “Wassailing” for “luck-visits” from house to house at Christmas time – singing carols and sharing the contents of their wassail bowls for which they expected to be rewarded with gifts, food and drinks.
They were considered to be the forerunners of modern day carol singers. This practise later evolved into modified versions. Then again, what is true in England is also true in Italy and in our Cochin, or everywhere.
And so, wassailing was enacted in our Cochin also when numerous groups dressed in character of Santa Claus and shepherds and shepherdesses in knee-length, floating skirts as dancers, together with their entourage of singers and musicians. They visited houses, predominantly in Fort Cochin and the coastal belt, to entertain during Christmas time.
Although this practise is slowly dying down, few groups are still active during the Christmas season. The songs which maintain great popularity in their street collection lists are “Jingle Bells”, and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” which tells of the approach of Santa Claus and his pack of reindeers.
These songs are nice accompaniments to dancing and rather similar to renditions such as “Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, etc.
Interspersed in their collection are popular songs from movies or simultaneously, versions in local language which some enlightened ones find not ‘hip’ and very un-English without some English terms peppered in it. But if there is one carol that is generally heard here throughout the Christmas time is the English version of “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht), a reverential rendition written in German in 1816 by Friar Joseph Mohr of Austria with music added to it by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818.
This is said to be one of the main songs (and also ‘Adeste Fideles’) the German and the English soldiers jointly sung on the first Christmas of the First World War, in 1914 when, in a spontaneous and unofficial Christmas truce, their guns fell silent for a brief period and they emerged out of their trenches into no-man’s land in a number of places along the Western Front: to exchange gifts, cigarettes and joyously sing carols and songs to commemorate the birth of baby Jesus. They knew that the war was going to last a long time and many would not live through for another Christmas Day or even see their wives back home knitting socks for the soldiers at the Front.
This chivalry between enemies in the military air to uphold the Christmas spirit is depicted in the films: “Joyeux Noël” (Merry Christmas – 2005/French); Oh, What a Lovely War (1969/UK) (1)
Many a Christmas carols and songs have played at the chords of the human heart with its angelic fingers: “The Twelve Days of Christmas” covers the 12 days starting with Christmas Day till 6th January (Epiphany); “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”; “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; “In The Bleak Mid-winter”; “Joy to the World”; “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Away in a Manger”; “Ding Dong! Merrily on High”; “Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful”; “In Excelsis Gloria”, and many many more. Some of these titles are highlighted here.
The most ancient carols known to us date from the Middle Ages. Historians contend that the word “Carol” passed from French into the English language in about 1300 and was associated with words, music and dance. Books of carols were cried about the streets of Paris as early as the thirteenth century.
These carols shadow forth the true spirit of miracle plays, religious spectacles, and old religious legends. In most cases, they were by and large in Latin which was the medium for prayers and chants in the churches in those days. Latin being unversed to most common men of Italy, San Francesco di Assisi presented the carols in his native language – supported by theatrics.
From there it gathered popularity, and despite occasional hindrances (such as the temporary abolition of Christmas in England in the 17th century), it survived through transitory periods spanning the medieval, the renaissance (rise of music printing and of vocal music performed with instruments), the baroque (invention of opera), the rococo (rise of comic opera and the symphony), the classicism (flowering of instrumental music), the romanticism (rise of the conductor and the golden age of the piano), the post-romanticism (dominance of mammoth orchestra), up to our time. In 1918, carols received the biggest boost when the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”, a Christmas Eve service which includes carols and readings from the Bible, were adopted by King’s College Cambridge.
People vary greatly in their way of responding to music. Tastes have altered. Then again, there is great proliferation of Christmas carols and songs, owing to the creative flair of many contemporary musicians who retain its originality.
As for us, we treasure each Christmas of our years gone past – its virtues of humility, generosity and love. We admire the splendour of its true traditions: the birth of baby Jesus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas crib, the star, the old decorations of rosemary and bays, the holly and the ivy, the poinsettias (Flores de Noche Buena/Flowers of the Holy Night), the Mistletoe, the greeting cards, exchange of gifts, the banquet which includes plum pottage, minced pies, roast beef, Christmas ale, and of course, Santa Claus, dancing and singing….
Although the Christmas festive season will come only once a year, our steadfast delight in the Christmas carols and songs ensure that those cherished melodies flutter around in our house, like butterflies, whatever the season may be. Enjoy your Christmas holidays! Ho! Ho! Ho!! Jo
- Christmas Truce: In books: Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub; Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy, etc. It is also the theme of Sainsbury’s official Christmas 2014 Advertisement
- DVD/Blu-ray of the movies referred above is available with main dealers of movies.
- This is dedicated to Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI who received Doctorates honoris causa on 04 July 2015 for five contributions to knowledge and culture – which includes his great respect for the musical tradition of the Church and his remarkable sensitivity to the music of faith. May he enjoy blessings of good health.
(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)
The joy of Christmas is nearer, drawing in a beehive of activities allied to it. The Christian Churches here, as in all parts of the world, are livened up for the yearly holy event marking the birth of baby Jesus, followed by the close of another year. Most educational institutions are on preparatory mode for holding mid-term exams prior to the culmination of the vacation season.
Plans are being made for annual vacations, or joyous activities, or gourmet feasts, or family get-togethers. Banking on the commercial value of the holiday season, the hospitality industry and other retailing sectors including big Malls are once again out with window decorations, dangling fantasies and other crowd-tickler marketing gimmicks through the media, web and signposts.
One is baffled and bewildered by the choice of innovative merchandize, latest tech trends, etc, available. “Happy Shopping Holidays” – three charming words dominate this period to augment the marketing campaigns.
A special event at all times to me, Christmas, like Easter, has a considerable period of preparation. The Gospel of St. Matthew relates so briefly about preparations that had taken place some 2020 years ago when, three wise men, proficient in astronomy and astrology, turned their heads up to gaze at a brilliant star that would set them on a journey. Theirs was a spiritual desire to find and adore a new-born child – to lay their gifts contained in caskets of odoriferous wood at the child’s tiny feet – gifts of pure gold (asserting the kingship of Christ), frankincense (Christ’s divinity) and myrrh (that He was man, and doomed to death).
Their long and perilous journey through “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star” culminated in success when they found the new-born Jesus not in the stable, as usually depicted in the scene by artists, but in a roofed house where the three holy ones were temporarily lodged. These three wise men (or kings) would be the first to acknowledge Christ.
These wise men, assumed to be three given that three gifts were given in homage of Christ’s birth, are identified by various names, but generally known as Balthazar, Melchior and C(G)aspar since the ninth century (1). Believed to be Babylonian names, according to an old valuable book about Virgin Mary, they probably hail from the city of Séleucide which was the abode of the most celebrated astronomers of antiquity (2).
The Bible also relates to another journey during that period, taken place hundreds of miles away from the path the Magi would travel. Carpenter Joseph of Nazareth in Galilee accompanied by his wife Mary was on their way to Bethlehem of Judea, to register their names and pay tribute-money owing to the Roman Census of population and landed possessions.
Besides his beloved pregnant wife riding on a donkey, Joseph, humble, modest and retiring, was devoid of possession of anything of great value except for few clothes and the usual provisions for their painful journey of possibly five days. Their basket made of palm leaves could have included dates, figs, raisins, thin cakes of barley meal, earthen vessel to hold water, and the most precious swaddling-bands Mary’s hands had prepared to envelop her child. The census, made in the late autumn or early winter when agricultural work had ceased, might have attracted great concourse of people to the region that accommodation in cells of caravansaries in Bethlehem were unavailable.
Whatever the reason, upon their arrival at Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary sought shelter in a stable in the interior of a little cavern located in the suburbs which served as a stable and sometimes as refuge for the shepherds in cold and stormy nights. In there, after a good lengthy time following the hour of the Nativity, the new-born infant was adored by the shepherds as the Christkindl lay in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.
The adoration of the shepherds and the Magi is depicted in several movies. One of the realistic among them appears in the initial scenes of director William Wyler’s cinematic triumph, Ben-Hur (1959), its devotional ambiance enhanced by the Academy Award winning music score of Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995). Watching Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” is an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Its grandeur and spectacle, colourful characters, richness of its screenplay, excellent direction, fantastic production values, the realistic action sequence of the chariot race, the many visual symbolic threads woven into the story such as water accentuated as an agent of renewal, the dramatic effect emphasized without showing Christ’s face, the transition from full orchestra to organ during the sequences in which Christ appears, and most importantly, its story about a rich man passing through the eye of the needle, had caught up my imagination that “Ben-Hur” rates the highest number of times I have seen a movie.
The little figurines of the Magi from the story of the Adoration of the Biblical Magi, part of the ensemble of the Christmas crib-set in our house, were objects of marvel in my childhood. Their crowned figures clad in embroidered robes featured all the paraphernalia and pomp of royalty; their camels decked with ornamental bridles and saddles, the mysterious gifts in their hands, were all sprigs of fascination. Their images got better and fine-looking as we purchased better crib-sets over the years – from Austria, Italy and Bangkok.
The custom of exchanging gifts could date back to the three wise men. As some stories go: in olden times on Christmas Eve, children used to place shoes filled with oats outside their huts for the camels of the Magi which they hoped would be miraculously replaced with gifts.
The closest I got to the physical entity of the three wise men was when we stood before the gilded and decorated triple Sarcophagus traditionally believed to contain the relics of the Magi at the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings (Dreikönigsschrein) behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral (Der Kölner Dom) in Germany.
Those relics were transferred from the church of St. Eustorgius in Milan on 23rd July 1164 by the powerful imperial chancellor, Rainald von Dassel (later Archbishop of Cologne) (3) having received them from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa).
Sometime after her arrival in the Holy Land around December 326/January 327 A.D., Helena (Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta/St. Helena – 248/9-329?), the mother of Emperor Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross, had discovered the bones of the Magi while searching for relics and building churches in honour of the life of Jesus. Chroniclers contend that she transferred the relics to Constantinople and later, Bishop Eustorgius, a native of Constantinople, was allowed by Emperor Constans (Flavius Iulius Constans Augustus – from 337 to 350) to transfer them to Milan in 343/44. The relics eventually became the most remarkable medieval cults to royalty.
The magi, a popular subject of tapestry, are patrons of travellers and pilgrims. In addition to the above three places, I have visited other centres where Christian reliquaries are kept, but a visit to one in Greece connected to the Magi remains yet to be realised. The Holy Monastery of Agiou Pavlou (Saint Paul’s) in Mount Athos houses, among many other relics, some cases containing gold, frankincense and myrrh, believed to be the gifts the Magi brought to baby Jesus. The authenticity of some of the relics could be doubtful but such vestiges play an important role as catalysts in connecting us to the history and legends of our illustrious past.
Christmas, celebrated everywhere, is particularly enjoyable at some places where it exudes a whole lot of charm to enjoy it the most. We have spent Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in different countries. Those special days made good memories for us – just like some days bearing special names are auspicious for many: Thanksgiving Day, Republic Day, Independence Day, May Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Valentine’s Day, Friendship Day, Day of Tiger, of Elephant, etc….. All this is very well.
Then again, woven into the fabric of the year are ill-fated days from history lesson: 9/11 (World Trade Center attack), 26/11 (Mumbai attack), 13/11 (Paris attack), ……. – named after disastrous events that have spawned sadness in us and bruised our pride, occasioned by malicious minds hell-bent on executing everything violent in excess. The world witnessed outpour of grief when innocent and helpless people lost their lives recently owing to brutal violence.
Even so, pain nourishes courage. The global goodwill resonated in displays of solidarity, judiciousness and calm wisdom when the Eiffel Tower, Paris; San Francisco City Hall; Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, Wembley Stadium in London; Brandenbourg Gate in Berlin; Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro; the CN Tower in Toronto; Burj Khalifa in Dubai; Tokyo Tower; Sydney Opera House; etc, showcased colours of blue, white and red. Vive la France!
Naturally, we bank on a sense of order and peace around us and we wish our lives to measure up to our hopes. There is nothing so precious and nothing more important than peace, though throughout history it has often been taken for granted until it’s too late. The past high degree of violence and unpredictability, offensive to our good spirits, had markedly dampened this holiday cheer. Recently there was news about tourists being selective on places to go for a safe and peaceful vacation.
As for us raring to go, despite the weather, we could opt for Christmas time in Italy even though we would be doing only a repeat of what we have done there many times over the years. There would be the traditional outdoor Christmas markets in Florence, Verona, Venice, Rome, …. On Christmas Eve, we could attend the Papal Mass by Papa Francesco at the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and admire the huge Christmas tree and the life-sized Nativity scene in Piazza San Pietro; or at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo di Firenze); or at Basilica di San Marco, Venezia and watch the gondola arrive with Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) to distribute goodies, before sitting down for dinner and Bellini at Cipriani’s Harry’s Bar; or at Basilica di Sant’Antonio di Padova where we have wonderful friends amongst the Franciscan friars of the Basilica, etc.
Besides England, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, all wonderful places where we have enjoyed the local culture, Madrid (Spain) would garner our priority due to the wonderful ensemble of jolly good friends we have there. Alternatively, should we look at the East, we could always opt for Thailand, Singapore – or within good old India.
Now with the three wise women in my life, my wife and two daughters, here – it’s ample reason to take the pleasure of this season in the comfort of our sweet home. There won’t be snow here. But, never mind – the carollers and Santa Claus will come, maybe even Santa Mama. Peaceful Cochin and Fort Cochin will be decked with lights and stars – with the brightest most cheerful displays. Impersonations of the three wise men may appear in the yearly Carnival on the first of the New Year. Listen closely and we may hear Santa Claus cracking up with laughter in helplessness – at the seasonal hike in retail prices. I think there was never a sad Christmas time in Fort Cochin except maybe in 1524 when a period of mourning was observed owing to the death of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at Fort Cochin on Christmas Eve.
Out of the many boxes resting in our storeroom for the past eleven months would spring beautiful stars, lights and ornaments to deck up our Christmas tree and adorn strategic places in our house. A beautiful floral table centrepiece will be made. My wife, very skilful with dazzling décor ideas, characteristic of her German origin, will once again ensure that all is done.
As for the creation of the Christmas crib, I believe I still have the inspiration from the creative astute shown by San Francesco di Assisi when he, with the permission of Pope Honorius III, recreated the Nativity scene (Presepio) for “the babe of Bethlehem” at the village of Greccio in Provincia di Rieti, Italy during the Christmas of 1223. Then again, the most inspiring of all this would be the message of Christmas – summarized in three magical words: “Kindness, Love, Peace”.
Not outdated or irrelevant, those sweet meditations of a mature faith appear relevant, especially in these times of adversity, to “survive with dignity”. Jo
- In art, so far as is known, the name of the three wise men appears for the first time in a relief sculpture on the lintel of the central portal above the main door at Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, the oldest surviving church in Pistoia, Tuscany. Created by Magister Gruamonte and his brother Adeodatus, it dates to 1166 – about 29 years prior to the birth of St. Anthony of Padova.
- The three wise men were said to have come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba – three of the many places proposed as their countries of origin.
- In “The War of Frederick I. against the Communes of Lombardy”, Rainald is named as Reinhardt.
- The DVD/Blu-ray of “Ben-Hur” (1959) referred in this article, is available with main dealers of movies. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
- This article is in memory of Michael and Gertrud Schüller, (late) parents of Carina, who would have loved to spend this Christmas here with us. May their souls rest in peace.
(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)