By By Lully, Lullay

This is my favorite Christmas carol. I don't know when or how or why it became my favorite. I don't remember the first time I heard it, and never sang it myself back in my choir days. I've never known the words; I just hum along. But it seems like it always been a part of my Christmas, and I think its minor key melody and its early-music feel are beautiful.

So, I thought I would share it here on my happy little blog as a way of saying Merry Christmas, and of spreading something beautiful around at this beautiful time of year. The researcher in me thought it would be a good idea to learn a little more about the carol before writing a post on it. All I can say is: Leave it to me to have the most depressing Christmas carol ever as my favorite.

First of all, here are the lyrics:

The Coventry Carol

Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child,
By by, lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By by lully, lullay

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing.
By by, lully lullay?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for thee!
And ever mourn and say,
For thy parting neither say nor sing
By by, lully, lullay.

And here's what else I learned:

--This carol is one of the earliest extant Christmas carols in the English language.
--It comes from a cycle of mystery plays performed in the English town of Coventry during the middle ages.
--It was sung as part of The Pageant of the Shearman and the Tailors, which tells the story of the Annunciation (visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary), the Nativity (birth of Christ), the angels appearance to the shepherds, the shepherds adoration, the flight into Egypt, and the massacre of the Holy Innocents.
--In the pageant, The Coventry Carol is sung by the mothers of Bethlehem who are trying to hush their children so that Herod's men will not hear them, find them, and kill them according to Herod's order: "When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi. Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more."

(Matthew 2:16-18)

--In the play, as in scripture, the song does not soothe the children and they are murdered. The Church, which christened them "the Holy Innocents," considers them to be the first Christian martyrs.

So, sorry to be a downer. But actually, learning more about this carol has helped me to appreciate anew my great good fortune. If you think about it, the story of the mothers trying to hush their babies to avoid discovery and certain death is one of the oldest stories there is. We hear about it in bible stories, accounts from the wars of history, especially from accounts of Aktionen against Jews during WWII, and even now in places like Iraq and Afghanistan (I remember, in particular, hearing the story of a mother in Iraq who suffocated her baby while trying to keep him/her quiet when Saddam Hussein's men were searching her house for her husband and brothers. The adults avoided detection, but the baby died.). How lucky am I that my biggest worry is whether or not I'll get packed in time to go to bed at a decent hour, and how the kids will do in the car on the way to Grandma's?

This music also reminds me that even during times of great joy, there is great suffering. That, although our society wants us to be almost pathologically happy at Christmastime, this is a very difficult time of year for some: those who are grieving, whose family situations are difficult, who are ill, who don't have enough to provide for their families, and many others.

So, a little bit of beautiful music with a sad story behind it; and yet one that helps me to appreciate many small and large blessings in my life. And a song that won't let me forget about the many people who are suffering this Christmas.

Say a little prayer for them, if you're the praying type, and have a blessed Christmas.

(P.S. My source for information about The Coventry Carol is The Penguin Book of Carols edited by Ian Bradley (c)1999.


CitricSugar said...

Thank you for the history lesson - I, too, love that carol but had never thought of the meaning behind it. Sad, yes, but not a downer, per se.

It never hurts to put things in perspective, especially this time of year.

DLD said...

I also love that carol, never paid attention to (or perhaps even heard) the words, and am grateful for the lesson. It actually dovetails oddly and wonderfully and somewhat frighteningly with one of the themes of my own reflection this Advent/Christmas: that our secularized version of Christmas, particularly in its child-centeredness, cuts off something of the fullness of the faith. This carol brings it back. Thanks!