Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmases once and future


When I was a child, one of the highlights of the Christmas season was hearing my mother break out her full-throated soprano at the first strains of the song "O Holy Night!" She belted out all three verses. Unlike me, she had a beautiful voice and could carry a tune. Also, unlike me, the lyrics came to her in the original French. I learned the sounds phonetically (without meaning) years before I attended to the English words. I can still produce a mangled facsimile of the French lyrics.

Reading randomly on the internet as I do, I encountered a blog post titled Christmas Carols as Resistance Literature, which pointed out that, as is often the case, there's more going on in this Christmas carol than the conventional consumer holiday might lead us to expect.

The French text by Placide Cappeau dates from the 1840s; the English by a Boston Unitarian minister, John Sullivan Dwight. Those were not quiet times in either country. In France, the insurrectionary energies that would lead to the revolutions of 1848 and the fateful partnership between Marx and Engels were building. In the United States, abolitionism was gaining ground in Dwight's circles.

Thus it is no surprise that, in both the original French and in English, in the third verse Jesus' birth is hailed as the coming of liberation:
  • Le Rédempteur a brisé toute entrave:
    La terre est libre, et le ciel est ouvert.
    Il voit un frère où n'était qu'un esclave,
    L'amour unit ceux qu'enchaînait le fer.
  • Truly He taught us to love one another;
    His law is love and His gospel is peace.
    Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
    And in His name all oppression shall cease.
All this setting people free stuff makes sense when one remembers, when the Jesus surprised his neighbors by reading in his home synagogue in Nazareth, his text was from the prophet Isaiah.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Yes, however domesticated, there's an enduring resistance literature here.

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