Friday, December 23, 2016

Away in a Manger: No Heart in Your Head

I never cared much for Away in a Manger, even before I discovered this particular hymn was apocryphally attributed to heresiarch Martin Luther. Although "Away" post-dates Luther by three or four centuries, it very much bears more resemblance to the grouchy German's influence than it would Renaissance Catholicism and it betrays the influence of Protestantism on Western hymnody, even in the Catholic world.

The Latin Church never originally sang hymns during Divine service. The psalms suffice for chant and have the added benefit of deriving from Holy Writ, meaning they form a continuity with the Temple sacrifice of the old covenant and they constitute a Theosophic narration, as if God and the saints are saying the words and we are listening. Hymns were a Gallican introduction which Rome finally admitted in the 13th century under the Franciscan pope Nicholas. While a stranger to the Roman rite, hymns were not foreign to the Gallican tradition nor were they used ad libitum. Rather, they, like the schedule of psalms itself, formed part of a coherent order for the sanctification of the day. Popular hymns had no place in the Office and could rarely be sung at Mass; the Offertory verses were normally supplemented with motets and only the priest communicated, making additional music superfluous.

Popular hymnody proliferated during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Indeed, many of our most beloved Christmas hymns came out of this era: Noel Nouvelete, Resonet in Laudibus, the Coventry Carol, and more. Carols were popular articulations of belief sung outside of the liturgy in communal, celebratory settings like village feasts, processions, festivals, and pageants (the Coventry Carol falls into this last category).

After the Reformation hymns began to take on a very different aspect than they enjoyed before. As the Reformers assigned the Latin rite to the dustbin they replaced the proper parts of the liturgy with popular hymns. While some hymns retained a didactic quality—namely in the Anglican world—the new genre also filled a spiritual, personal wound the Reformers created. In the medieval Catholic scheme, one encountered God directly in the Sacraments, celebrated with feasts and processions, and could foster personal devotion to God's friends, the Saints. The strong resemblance between Anglican choral dress and academic garb betrays the fact that the Reformation was led almost entirely by the over-educated, under-talented class who could not agree about Augustine. Their's was a religion of the head with no room for the heart. Hymns gave a voice to the Protestant plebeians, an opportunity for tenderness and mercy lost in the new religion.

The impersonalization of Catholic worship, the four hymn sandwich low Mass, and the operatic high Masses eventually broke the dam holding out Protestant liturgical influence from the Church. Still, Catholic hymns resisted the sappy spiritual element, holding God above and keeping we the sinners below, until the 19th century. Interestingly, Catholic countries retained this outlook more strongly in their popular songs than in their liturgical hymns.

Compare the sweet Away in a Manger with a literal translation of the familiar French carol, O Holy Night:

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.
The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.I love thee, Lord Jesus! look down from the sky,And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.
Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stayClose by me forever, and love me I pray.Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,And take us to heaven to live with thee there.
O Holy Night:

Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour,
When God as man descended unto us
To erase the stain of original sin
And to end the wrath of His Father.
The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Saviour.
People, kneel down, await your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!

May the ardent light of our Faith
Guide us all to the cradle of the infant,
As in ancient times a brilliant star
Guided the Oriental kings there.
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!

The Redeemer has broken every bond:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
People, stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

Now, which one is really more like Faith of Our Fathers?


  1. Here in Croatia we have a great number of Church folk songs. The Christmas section of those includes renditions of propers and the ordinary. That presents Croatians with a difficulty. There is a Christmas Kyrie which is okay - it doesn't replace the text. It's actually a troped Kyrie.
    But the Gloria and Credo... oh my, those are only shadows of the actual texts. The problem? Those things were sung for at least 150 years. So: respect the tradition, or obey the rubric and say the actual text?
    Well it's a difficulty for some. Not for me. I'm a dictator. I would suffer no such silly traditions over the age old texts, especially not over καὶ σαρκωθέντα ἐκ Πνεύματος Ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου καὶ ἐνανθρωπήσαντα.

  2. There was a tradition in Portugal of a novena of Masses before Christmas which were "sung", buy from what I've been able to tell, it was the laity singing " over" the Mass (I.e, singing hymns while the priest celebrated soto voce). I need to read up on what exactly was the praxis.

    1. Most probably what you describe was the case. That's how it was in Croatia.

    2. That's a perfect description of an independent (i.e., Williamsonite) chapel near me - not so much a four hymn sandwich as a zillion hymn burrito, with the choir singing hymns nonstop over everything but the gospel and the canon. In short, a low Mass with endless hymns.

      But I think this tradition isn't nearly as old as the one in Portugal.

  3. Ironically,"O Holy Night" was written as a Hymn with Allusions to the "La Mareseillaise".

  4. Protestant though their origins may be, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" will always be my favorites. The melodies are beautiful, the focus is on the salvific aspect of the feast, and I will almost never complain if they are sung in church.

    "Away in a Manger" can go into the dustbin with "Deck the Halls" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"