Let it snow, Let it snow, Let it snow…..

RIMG0065.JPGAfter 21 years of living in Bristol, this is the first year we have a serious cold snap leading up to the festive season and a real possibility of a white Christmas. As I am writing this, I can only glimpse out of my attic window if I squint enough to sneak-peek through the snow crystals that have formed on the outside of the glass – it’s quite magical and not likely to change for the next few days at least. After a difficult autumn, we have all found it hard to get into a festive mood. We’ve tried…: the Christmas tree went up on the 4th December, the earliest ever; we finally had the fire place fixed and we are nearly hitting overdose when it comes to listening to carols. Still, none of it quite hit the mark. So the snow came at just the right time, and it’s done the trick… ­čÖé Despite our frantic world, the world outside is blissfully quiet as the snow flutters down to the ground, creating an air of peace and calm.

Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht

I wonder if it was like this in Oberndorf (Austria), Christmas Eve 1818. It certainly was quiet – the church organ had died overnight and the local priest Joseph Mohr and his organist, Franz Gruber had to do a bit of improvisation to make Christmas Eve special. Their quick thinking paid off. ┬áMohr dug out a poem he had written some years earlier, and Gruber put it to music for a tenor, a soprano and a choir. And that was the birth ofSilent Night’, possibly the most popular Christmas carol ever. There is something very pure about the song and I could listen to its calming effect all day.

The Nativity

nativity.jpgAll this has led me to wonder about the origins of carols and a little digging around came up with some amazing facts.  The habit of singing carols dates back to pagan days, and it was introduced into Christian traditions in an attempt to win over the last remaining pagans. However, most carols were sung in Latin, and people rapidly lost interest not only in the carols, but in celebrating Christmas altogether. And who do you think came to the rescue? None other than St. Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 introduced nativity plays, which told the story of the birth of Jesus through the singing of carols, sung not in Latin, but in a language that the people could understand. The nativity plays and their carols became an instant hit with the 13th century audiences and the tradition rapidly spread all over Europe.

Carol Singing

This was the era of travelling minstrels, and it was they who were ultimately responsible for bringing much-loved carols to people all over Europe. The carols were often adapted to suit new audiences and as a result many of the oldest carols have had complete make-overs: even if you were able to hear the original version, you might not recognise either the music or the lyrics.

Did you know that…

Christmas Eve used to be knows as Wait-Night or Watch-Night – as this was the night for shepherds to watch their flocks by night, waiting for the birth of Jesus.

As carol singing was only done on Christmas Eve, the carol singers were known as ‘Waits’ (yes, I do find this funny – my family really was destined to do carol singing…)

Sadly, not many of the original carols have survived – the oldest dates back to 1401, but is incomplete. Worse even, during the era of Oliver Cromwell, the singing of carols and eating of minced pies was strictly forbidden. Still, many old carols such as ‘the Holly and the Ivy’ (thought to be 1000 years old) have survived even this. Carol services as we know them these days in the UK were relatively unheard of even during┬áCharles Dickens’ times. ┬áCarol singing finally achieved respectability in the second half of the 19th century, when they were first heard inside the Cathedral instead of outside on the streets.

Julenissen.jpgThe best traditions

There are of course many traditions all across Europe – almost every country has its own lovely way of celebrating Christmas. In Finland the Christmas Peace is declared very publicly from the Brinkala Mansion in the main square of Turku, the original capital before Helsinki got the title in 1812. ┬áFinland is also the ‘home of Santa Claus’, and you can visit the good man himself if you travel across the Arctic Circle and head north just past Rovaniemi. If you have ever visited Ikea at Christmas time, you will have noticed the straw goats for sale. They are called Julbock (Christmas goats) and they honour the goats that used to pull the carriage of the god Thor. ┬áNo self-respecting Swedish family would be without their Julbock at Christmas. Norwegian children get their presents from the Christmas Elf called Julenissen.

Coplatek.jpghristmas celebrations in Poland are full of tradition and magic, and date back to the pagan times before Christmas. People used to believe that on Wigelia (Christmas Eve) animals could speak and people could predict the future. They also believed that whatever happened on that day would predict the outcome of the next 12 months. Influenced by all this, everybody tries hard to extra good on Christmas Eve. Houses are scrubbed clean and once everybody has changed in their best clothes, the table is set. A layer of fresh hay is spread across the table representing Jesus’ crib and a thick table cloth is laid across it. The meal starts with everybody sharing Oplatek, special Christmas wafers. Traditionally, the meal will consist of 12 dishes representing the 12 disciples, and best of all – there is always an extra plate on the table, for the unexpected guest. After dinner the whole family will set off for Midnight Mass and the singing of ‘Koledy’ – the Polish version of Christmas carols.

candle-light.jpgHowever different our traditions may be, we have many things in common at Christmas. It is generally agreed, for instance, that Christmas is a time for sharing – like that plate for the unexpected guest in Poland. And it is a time when we can all join voices in the singing of carols we all know and love – and there is no carol better loved that Silent Night. I wish you all a warm, peaceful and joyful Christmas, wherever you are.

PS. For those of you who love the very best of the carols, I have provided a link here to one of the best, to put you in the mood. ­čÖé
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  1. Posted December 20, 2010 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    It’s amazing how I can feel the warmth of your fire place, the cold of the snow and the magic of Christmas through your words. I do agree, it is now the time of sharing, and of singing (of course!) in Italy too.

  2. Alison Paton
    Posted December 24, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    This is a great chapter-it really is frozen and wintry here in Bristol, but your writing is perfect! Let the singing begin!

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