Tag Archives: history

What Is the Oldest Carol We Have?

(This is my fourth installment in a series I call Christmas Carol Countdown where I’m endeavoring to uncover the rich history of Christmas carols)

As I’ve said before I love carols, and it is my goal to deepen my understanding of how these carols have come about.  I’ve often wondered what the first carols might have sounded like.  Most of the carols we know of today were written in the 1800’s and after.  Perhaps they were of humble beginnings, sounding nothing like the carols we have, or perhaps, they were glorious beyond imagination.

At first efforts, I went way way back and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t the angels who sung to the shepherds be the first carolers ever?”  It’s a song.  It’s about Christmas.  For those of you who don’t know, it went like this:

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God saying; Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”  Luke 1:13-14

Then I realized a few things.  One, this technically was not about Christmas yet, as far as the meaning of Christmas goes.  It comes from “Christ Mass”; yes, mass like the boring service your grandmother used to drag you to.  Over the years, we simply started calling it Christmas, because it was easier.  But I guess in a way because they were singing about Jesus Christ, it might have been the first carol.

Then the other thing I realized was, according to the definition of carol, it has to be a song.  Take a look at the verse again.  Are the angels singing? “…heavenly host praising God saying…” (italics added)  They were simply speaking!  Not singing!  I remember a preacher once saying, “It takes for a soul to be lost and found for it to be able to sing.  Angels have never been lost, they’ve always dwelt in the presence of the Lord, and so they simply proclaim praise.  We get the privilege to sing.”  I’m not sure I agree 100%, but it’s an interesting notion.

So, according to the traditional definition of carol, Luke’s gospel account of the angels proclaiming Christ’s birth, indeed does not count as the first carol.  In my book.

My hope then leaned on our early Church Fathers to show me the glory of the first carol.  As multiple sources said, the earliest (perhaps even earlier, I don’t assume exhaustive knowledge) mentions a carol or nativity hymn in the 3rd century.  Interestingly we have documents of our Church Fathers’ writings that go back even to the 2nd century, but unfortunately we only begin to hear of some sort of Christmas liturgy around the 3rd century.  Our dear church fathers, Saint Hippolytus of Rome and Sextus Julius Africanus, mentioned a nativity liturgy.  What they were singing…we don’t know.  Sorry if I got you going there.  But, thankfully around the 4th century we may have our first carol.  Drum roll please.

By Saint Ephraim the Syrian, a hymn (AD 306-373)

The feast day of your birth resembles You, Lord
Because it brings joy to all humanity.
Old people and infants alike enjoy your day.
Your day is celebrated
from generation to generation.
Kings and emperors may pass away,
And the festivals to commemorate them soon lapse.
But your festival
will be remembered until the end of time.
Your day is a means and a pledge of peace.
At Your birth heaven and earth were reconciled,
Since you came from heaven to earth on that day
You forgave our sins and wiped away our guilt.
You gave us so many gifts on the day of your birth:
A treasure chest of spiritual medicines for the sick;
Spiritual light for the blind;
The cup of salvation for the thirsty;
The bread of life for the hungry.
In the winter when trees are bare,
You give us the most succulent spiritual fruit.
In the frost when the earth is barren,
You bring new hope to our souls.
In December when seeds are hidden in the soil,
The staff of life springs forth from the virgin womb

There we have it!  The first extant carol of our time.  It doesn’t rhyme  and meter like some carols, it probably can’t be put to a catchy tune as some carols do, but it wonderfully captures the spirit and reason why we celebrate Christmas in the first place…the birth of hope for mankind.

Christmas Carol Countdown – Be a More Informed Caroler (intro)

It’s December 1st today, and Christmas is just around the corner.  If you’re like me, as you’ve enjoyed singing carols year in and year out, you come across songs and lyrics and realize, “I have no idea what I’m singing about, but hey, it feels good to be a part of this tradition of music.”  Like who is “Good King Wencelass”, why are the “Three Ships” important, where did the “drummer boy” come in to the Christmas story, and what is up with all the ridiculous types of birds, like turtle doves, French hens, and partridges.

There is such a beautiful tradition of music surrounding our holiday of Christmas, and it is my goal this Christmas to be a better informed carol singer.  Long gone will the days be when as I sung a carol tune I would wish I knew the context of the song.

Join me as we explore together the beautifully rich tradition of music that stretches back to the time of Christ.  We will explore the backdrop to some well known carols that everyone is familiar with, and lesser known ones as well.

An Assassin goes Berserk!

French is silly, and so are drugs….

As most people do on a snowy evening in Chicago, I sat down on my semi-plush couch and opened a book I haven’t peered into for weeks!  It’s one of my favorites, and I do enjoy its contents very much.  Its called “A Certain ‘Je ne Sais Quoi'”, by Chloe Rhodes.  Its not a book of poetic compilations, its not full of prose, nor is it a lengthy novel, or a history lesson teacher.  It’s simply….words!  Of course just not words, because I’m typing away just making words, but rather, the history of words.  Moreover, the history of words we use everyday, that have found its origin in different languages.  English for one, loves to draw upon French words….or should I say the more beaujois class of English speakers love to remember such anti-phonetic words.  I hate the language, frankly.  You don’t pronounce 75% of the letters in any given word!  “Jors des….something….HA Google found it.  “Hors d’oeuvres”  Or as we say in English “or-durves”.

Two words I found fascinating tonight in this book.  One word from Arabic origin, and the other from Old Norse, a very old language not spoken today, but once spoken in Scandinavia.  The one from Arab origin “assassin” and the other “berserk”.  The word assassin you know, but berserk not so much, perhaps you’ve heard it with a “z” instead of an “s”.  Like this perhaps, “That five year old, once he ate the whole dozen of those sugar cookies, he just went ‘berzerk!'”  It means to go crazy, to be frantic, or even violent.

History anyone?

A brief history of “Assassin”: The Hashashin, was an Islamic militant sect founded in the ninth century when Yemeni Shiite Hasan-I Sabbah led them in their mission to to overthrow the Sunni Muslims by killing off their leaders.  The name Hasashin means “hashish eaters”.  They were users of early marijuana.   The first English usage of assassin, the anglicized translation of Hashashin, came about in 1603.

A brief history of “Berserk”: Also in the ninth century, the Vikings used this word to describe their ferocious warriors, who wore bearskins instead of armor.  They would eat mushrooms yielding a hallucinogenic state, so they would go into battle in a furious frenzied way.  They were called “Berserkers”.  This word first appeard in English much later, in the 1822.

Perhaps its the violence of late found in Egypt that made these two words jump off the page.  Perhaps its my admiration for movies like Bourne Identity, where the role of assassin is made to look like the most exciting and adventurous career one could embark on (but I’m not so easily tricked).  Much to my disappointment, this history lesson teaches me that Jason Bourne was likely a user too.  Sad, I know.

The thing thats curious to me, is their usage of drugs.  They were both users of mind-altering chemistry.  The Arabs with their Mary Jane, and the Vikings with their shrooms, those two peoples combined would have been worse than the terrible Turks.


Mr. Photoengraver

Perhaps he was quite old, maybe younger in his late 50’s but most probably, older. He probably learned this technology as it was dying out in the early 50’s and 60’s. The technology was first used in the 1850’s. Were talking old, and were talking about the graphic art technology called “photoengraving”. At a major newspaper where I work, I just put through the forms to let go of a man whose title was “Photoengraver”. I asked someone, and upon their brief explanation of what it was, I became intrigued and dug a little deeper. It was chemical/mechanic process of taking a photo of a subject through a fine mesh of wire, so that a transfer of negative to metal plating, would be more accurate. Where light hit the metal, an acid was applied so as to engrave the image of the negative on the metal. In the newspaper industry they would apply the metal image to a newspaper cover or columns, and voile! you have a picture on newspaper. Back it up a step, just leave the metal as is (don’t press paper to it), and you have the way they used to engrave metal plaques for names, organizations and such.

I wonder if he probably made photos for Al Capone, the World Wars, etc. In a way, just honoring this mans work while looking back into the history of photography.

Look at the photo below, and notice how it looks kind of copperish color, because it is. The common metal used for posters like this were made from copper.

If you’re a photographer and want to shed light on this, clarify, add, or correct, feel free.

Alma mater

History is so delicious! Isn’t it? Maybe its just me. We learn so much from it. Today I found something interesting connected with this phrase, “alma mater”.

Let me first start by noting with amazement how much we derived from those darn Romans. Culture, language, law, societal system, etc. Alma mater is one of those phrases that date clear past the death of Christ and finds its landing in early Roman mythological speak. “Nourishing mother” is the direct translation, and was first used as a title for goddesses. From there early Christians who were of Catholic faith started using alma mater to describe the Virgin Mary. Then a more traditional use of the term as we know it began in a university in Italy. The University of Bologna, which is the oldest known university in the world, had this phrase as its motto. It is thought from this use of the phrase we get our familiarized usage of this term, alma mater studorum, which translates to “nourishing mother of studies”.
Another point of interest in the world of education happened around the 1600’s through 1700’s. This was an age of reviving among Christians in which laymen, pastors and scholars challenged views of God and the Church. They compared what the scriptures taught against what had been traditionally taught by the Pope and his Catholic Church, and there continued a division that was started by other men like Martin Luther and John Calvin. What Puritans realized was that there was an extreme lack of men to lead churches, or just groups of people with educated knowledge of the scriptures. Out of the Puritan movement came a resurgence of education and scholarship. Schools were started to educate people, to prepare them for the ministry to be pastors, scholars, or whatever the need was. From this was birthed schools like Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge. Much of the great ivy-league schools we know of today, were actually instituted to accomodate a growing need for pastors. Interesting, right?