Liner Notes:  Chantons Noel - Let's Sing of Christmas
The earliest account of French Christmas Carols we have is by Etienne Pasquier, the 16th century French jurist: “Every evening during the Advent period, when I was young, virtually every family adhered to the practice, which developed into a ceremony, of singing carols that were spiritual songs written in honour of our Lord”. Although it is impossible to establish the origin of these Christmas carols with any certainty, it seems that they arose around the end of the 15th century, as one of the many items in the entertainments or pastoral comedies of the Nativity Mystery plays. At that time, Christmas carols were part of a tradition which was more popular than religious, hence the mixture of secular and religious elements in the Christmas carol texts. The words, however, were sung more often than not to liturgical melodies when they did not have their own original melody. It was only in the 16th century that carol music was to assimilate popular melodies. The great success of Chrismas carols in the 16th century was due primarily to their popular audience: great religious themes, the most common of which being the life of Jesus and of his mother, were being humanised in these carols which were composed by ordinary people for ordinary people. The many New Testament parables and stories, introduced by the church, were thus communicated to the majority of the population in a lively, accessible way via the medium of Christmas carols. And even if, due to the church’s acceptance of religious Christmas carols, some lighter carols were also accepted, it is, however, worth noting how quickly Christmas carols stabilised by mingling an often overcomplex theology with the poetry of popular songs and words. Everywhere in France, from Lorraine, from where Il est né le divin enfant originated, to Languedoc, which produced Les anges dans nos campagnes, Christmas carols became an essential feature of Christmas festivities, whether they were essentially religious or popular. The most revealing account, however, of the magic that Christmas carols have wielded down the years is probably the recollection that Chateaubriand described, in the early part of the 19th century, in the Génie du Christianisme: “Our Gallic hymns, the same carols sung by our forebears, also had their worth ; you could sense the innocence and the purity of faith they contained, When carrying out our tasks in the countryside, why did we feel moved when the ploughmen chanced to sing for salvation:
Let us all adore, 0 indescribable mystery, a hidden God, etc?
It was because there was a compelling note of sincerity and conviction in those country voices. The carols, which depicted rustic scenes, had a very graceful quality when sung by a peasant woman. When the noise of the spindle accompanied her songs, when the children listened spellbound, at her knees, to the story of the Baby Jesus and his crib, it would have been impossible, to find sweeter melodies and a religion more fitting for a mother”.

Christmas carols are therefore a way of expressing a living faith, a faith which is not born of thought or education, but, and this is exactly what gives it its poetical and sacred quality, one which simply comes from a spiritual love and a nation’s deep love of the poetry that it can sense within, of the beauty that it gazes upon in nature and of the generosity of a God that it recognises as its own. Nowadays, since Christmas has lost much of its theological nature and has become little more than an opportunity for straighforward rejoicing, these Christmas carols, pure expressions of the art produced by the poetical soul of the people, are the most beautiful way of re-discovering the intensity of faith, “Because it is truly, Lord, the best proof We can give of our dignity
That passionate sob which travels from age to age
And comes to die on the brink of your eternity !“

Jérôme Pélissier
Translated by Byword

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