For many years now, Strada has been exploring Mediterranean music which continues to draw from medieval tradition. Strada’s rendition of the few scores that have been handed down to us from the Middle [...]
They spoke about it
The members of the group Strada are fervent fans of Mediterranean music, which is often widely travelled and marked by the influence of the Middle Ages. It is while I was researching the vast repertoire of this street and festive music that the theme of Christmas clearly imposed itself. In 1994, and again in 1995, we produced a concert entitled “Le Noël des Santons” conceived around the story of Christmas as told in different European countries over a period of five centuries. I soon discovered that there exist many little-known ancient carols.
They come in both in song and dance form, carrying an immense history and providing an even greater pleasure, both to the artists who perform them as if they were a celebration, and to the public which discovers their unique ability to touch us deeply. This repertoire has also enchanted me in other ways. There is, besides its great beauty, the way it combines simplicity and virtuosity, the way it expresses seriousness through lightness and joy, and especially the way it speaks to us of other people. Not that the well-known carols we hear during the weeks preceding Christmas are void of these qualities, but here we are in the presence of a sound that truly teaches this formidable miracle, and this in the language of the humble folk, told, I would even say, with a certain rustic simplicity. Shepherds are often the principle characters in popular songs, but the more classical themes of angelic annunciations or awakenings in the middle of the night are also common in the Christmas carols from the 15th century on, after the Nativity hymns of the Middle Ages. The instruments become truly important: the chalumeau (ancestor of the clarinet), and the musette or bagpipes, favorite instruments of shepherds, play unpretentious melodies for us, accompanied by the rhythms of the string drums, Jew’s harps and other ringing instruments. Nor should we forget the music of the South of France. When listening to the fifes, we immediately understand that this music was not intended for cold and sombre cathedrals, but for places that were bright and filled with laughter and, I must say (at the risk of displeasing the baby Jesus), full of the odors of good grub. This recording was thus inspired by the concert “Le Noël des Santons.”
I hope you will have as much pleasure listening to it as we had performing it.
The word Noël comes from the latin nata-lis, which means “birth.” Although the exact date of Christ’s birth is not known, and even though Christmas has been celebrated in January, March, April, and even in May, it seems that it was with the intention of integrating other religious and pagan celebrations that the Church chose December 25. Pagan rituals surrounding the winter solstice (December 21) were indeed numerous in antiquity, and were performed as much by the Romans and their ancestors as by Nordic nations. The harvest, sowing and return of the sun believed dead due to the shortened days were all celebrated.
The rituals of light and fertility thus found themselves intertwined, with even stronger symbolic contents. Roman Saturnals, the cult of Yule in Nordic countries, and even the Persian cult of Mithra were all strongly implanted, and it is easy to understand why the Church felt it couldn’t abolish them. It is only through the centuries that the celebration itself brought about the fusion of these pre-existing customs to give Christmas the atmosphere we know today. This transformation was not brought about solely by travelling through the centuries; Christmas also travelled with people and races.
From Finland to Canada, Greece to Italy, people have brought their own tradition, giving Christmas both a unique and plural look that has made it a symbol of fulfilled hopes and joys, a brilliant light in the middle of winter.
“O Christmas Tree”
In certain nordic countries, sprays of foliage and greenery were hung on doors and windows to prevent the evil spirits of the forest from entering houses in the winter. Through the centuries, these sprays were replaced by evergreen trees, such as firs, that were put in the houses. The first decorated Christmas trees appeared in Alsace about 350 years ago.
From ox to donkey
Do not look for the ox and donkey in the gospels. They are mentioned neither in John or Matthew, nor in any of the other gospels. The two animals warming the baby Jesus appeared in the Middle Ages, in the Apocrypha. They later became traditional fixtures of our Nativity Scenes.
The revolution of the crib
Saint Francis of Assisi had the idea of a large-scale Nativity by recreating a living scene during midnight mass. A new ritual was born which recalled the mystery of Christ’s birth. Today we find beautiful Christmas cribs in front of our churches, but also smaller ones at the foot of our Christmas trees, near the presents. This tradition comes from France. During the French Revolution, the sans-culottes forbade midnight mass (as they did other religious rituals). No more midnight mass, no more enacted Nativity scenes. The idea then came about in Provence, in the south of France, to make Nativity scenes from clay, with tiny figurines which not only included the Child Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but also people from the village such as the fish merchant, bread maker, and many others. The santons were thus born.
Bûche in French-speaking countries, ceppo in Italy, chuquet in Normandy, the Yule log is burnt all across Europe. One of the oldest descriptions goes back to 1597 and tells of burning the largest possible log on Christmas Eve, and of family members who would throw salt or wine on it. It is sometimes said that burning a log is a continuation of the fire-feast of Yule of the druids. Long ago, the log was given divinatory powers. Pieces of unburned wood were used to protect houses from lightning, charcoal buried at the foot of trees to increase the harvest. And how was this Yule log transformed into a delicious cake? Another Christmas mystery…
Santa Claus, or la Befana
It was an American artist, Thomas Nast, who combined the German Weinachtmann, the French or Dutch Saint-Nicolas, the Chrischkindl from Alsace, the Russian Father Gel and the Italian Beppo Natale to create the Santa Claus known world-wide, the jolly white-bearded man in the red suit. There is a female version of Santa Claus, la Befana, which means “Epiphany” in Italian.
La Befana resembles an old witch entirely dressed in black. Legend says that she lived in Bethlehem and that one day three travelers asked her to help them carry gifts to a Child-King whose birth had been announced by a star. She refused, and since that day she is condemned to err, carrying with her an enormous bag filled with the toys she gives to children all over the world.
© Dominique Renaud
Translation: Alex Benjamin