The first time I met this song was in high school choir, I think, and I remember feeling so terribly pleased with myself for being able to sing in French. (Come to think of it, several examples of my non-English singing started in Christmas carols—Silent Night was my first German song, in elementary school. I think I’ve now sung in 12 or so different languages, including English, so it’s fun to remember when that was still new.) I still think of the song primarily in French, though I know it is often sung in English translation. (Both sets of lyrics, in case you’re curious, can be found here.)
This song is originally a dance tune from the 16th century Provence region in southeastern France (part of the region that borders Italy, in case your European geography is a bit rusty). What I like about it (besides that it’s very bouncy and the enduring memory of that first go at it) is that it totally makes up stuff about the birth of Christ.
We tend to get super locked into the story of how Rome called a census and Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem and there was no room at the inns and they went to a stable and there were shepherds abiding in the field and lo, Luke and Matthew did trade off narratives. And that’s fine—I’m as spell-bound as any small child each Christmas eve when the birth narrative is read, even though I’ve heard it (and read it myself) elebenty billion times. But I like the medieval and Renaissance habit of sticking other people in Biblical narratives, the sort of one-liner extras hanging out on the margins while this miracle happened. It was one stable in a whole town, you know? Everyone else was still grumbling about the inconvenience of this influx of travellers answering Rome’s imperial order; they didn’t know there was a God-thing happening in a manger.
In this age, Christianity has had such a global influence that it’s hard to imagine (at least for me, as a Westerner) not knowing the story. But especially that first night, lots of people didn’t know. Lots of other children were born in various houses and fields and wherever else. Lots of other weary parents breathed a sigh of relief for having this new living being scream its first cry—and then realize that this was but the next phase of love and worry and frustration. But this one, this Child? We focus the whole of the night on Him, and it is good to be reminded that the whole of Bethlehem did not get an angel-gram announcing this particular birth. So how might they know? How might they be told of this Child, this God-man oddity dropped into their midst?
By two milkmaids, why not? The shepherds can’t have all the glory. It’s fitting, I think, to have two children—two female children, at that—announce the birth of this King to a town that had no patience for either females or children. And how more theological can you get than getting a light, a torch that burns brightly, to go tell the village of the Presence of this new Light that darkness cannot overcome? Well played, lyricist, well played.
And the bit about quietness? Good luck with that, in a stable of animals who don’t give a hoot (or, actually, give several hoots, and some moos, and a bit of bleating, and maybe some clucks) about what is needed by human children who so rudely take over their feeding trough. But it’s a fun thought, and even I who have no children know that a sleeping baby is not to be messed with, as some rarities are meant to be admired.
So go find your torch, Reader, and tell others of what is going on. Or just dance. Either is a perfectly fine option. And have a great Gaudete Sunday this weekend.
The shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. (Luke 2:17, TLB)