Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

msgrliptak_halfQ. Recently in a column you wrote that "Good King Wenceslaus," which I’ve often heard sung during Christmastime, is not by definition a "Christmas carol." Why not? What is the definition? And what about "The Boar’s Head Carol," which I consider another Christmas carol?

A. The source I use for understanding peripheral Catholic, as well as Christian, practices in general is Jesuit Father Francis X. Weiser’s Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York, Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1958). The volume, which has a preface by the scholarly Cardinal John Wright (then Bishop of Worcester), is dedicated to the liturgical giant Father Joseph A. Jungmann. The preface and the dedication alone testify loudly to the reliability of Father Weiser’s own expertise in his subject matter.

According to Father Weiser, a Christmas carol is less solemn than a hymn, yet essentially religious in nature, reflecting the Christmas theme. In a Latin-English glossary dated 1440, the "definition" of a carol is a "song, psalmodium." (op. cit., p. 78) However, this "definition" represents an evolution of the term "carol," deriving from the Greek, where it suggested dancing and flute-playing. The Romans introduced this concept to Britain, where it first meant a "ring dance accompanied by dancing." (ibid.)

Prior to Christmas carols, there were Christmas hymns, dating from at least the fifth century, and usually composed in Latin. One example cited by Father Weiser is "Jesus refulsit omnium" ("Jesus, light to all the nations") by St. Hilary of Poitiers.

Christmas carols in the contemporary sense evidently began around 1200; Saint Francis of Assisi launched the custom with the Latin "Psalmus in Nativitate." Soon, Christmas songs of joyous spirit spread from what is now Italy to Spain and France, thence throughout Europe. In 14th-century Germany, carols were being written by Dominicans noted for studies in spirituality; Blessed Henry Suso, for instance, authored the celebrated carol, "In dulci jubilo."

English carols? Beginning with the 1400s, many of them at that time can be listed, but few are still popular. A sudden halt to caroling began with the Reformation; Calvinists discouraged them, and the Puritans disallowed them.

When Christmas was reinstituted in England, a slow return to caroling took place. With the Methodist revival in the 1700s, Charles Wesley’s "Hark the Herald Angels" helped usher in a return to caroling in English. "Joy to the World," by Isaac Watts in 1748, contributed to the resurgence in America, although the first American carol dates from the 17th century. Called "Jesus is born," it was composed in the Huron Indian tongue ("Jesous Ahatonnia") by the Jesuit martyr, Saint Jean Brebeuf.

In Germany, carols appeared more and more in the mid-18th century; the favorite "Stille Nacht" is an Austrian composition dating from 1818.

"Good King Wenceslaus," which dates from 1866, is not per se about Christ’s Nativity but about the martyrdom of Saint Wenceslaus of Bohemia in 935. The link with Christmas is that Wenceslaus died "on the feast of Stephen" – Saint Stephen Protomartyr, observed on 26 December.

The "Boar’s Head Carol" has more to do with traditional English dining practices at Christmas, not with the mystery of Christmas itself. (One of the mainstays of the Christmas meal was a boar’s head.) The so-called "carol" relates how a schoolboy dispatched an onrushing boar simply by using his Latin book as a weapon. (I recall singing this "carol" in Latin during my second year of Latin in public high school. It was portrayed as a poetic testimony to the power of a Latin textbook over a charging animal.)