Tonight’s carol is highly appropriate considering some of the headlines on the news over the past day.
Coventry Carol is a song about a gruesome episode in the Bible, where King Herod orders all male children within a certain age range slaughtered because he hears it fortold that a baby born recently will be his undoing. This is hardly the only time a king is shown to take such drastic action, slaughtering innocents to try to remove an infant threat that somehow survives and defeats the king. Actual historical data from the time does not support this story as it appears in the modern Bible translations, but that is not surprising considering how much time would have passed between the events that inspired the story and the point at which someone wrote the manuscript that became that part of the Bible. It is a classic tale, regardless, and not one I would have expected to hear in a Christmas carol.
However, it has been popular in past eras to focus on one’s salvation around Christmas time, being super penitent and focusing on themes that reinforce fear of damnation. Winters were deadly trials for most people in earlier centuries in England, and this song dates back to the 1500’s. During that time, babies and elderly people tended to die over the winter, because heating was not always available and sufficient good, healthy food was hard to come by in mid-winter. One choir director who conducted this song for us mused on whether this song was one that became popular because it was a way of publically grieving for the lost infants and children of those singing or hearing this song. In that sort of mood, where damnation is real and terrible and death is always nearby, maybe Coventry Carol works perfectly. It is certainly a beautiful song.
Traditionally Coventry Carol is sung a cappella, which just adds to the creepy wrongness, and to its beauty.
Here is Hayley Westenra’s rendition, one of my all-time favorites- http://youtu.be/gjykMVzFd7g
Coventry Carol lyrics
Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do, For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging, Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his owne sight, All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee! And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.