In his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict attempts to set the record straight by differentiating between the precise biblical account of the Nativity and the later myths/traditions which have grown up around the gospel narratives. One of these traditions is the presence of animals at the birth… “in the gospels there is no mention of animals”. And he is in fact correct in an exact reading of the texts. It is also true that, according to these accounts, Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem just prior to the birth in the stable. That journey would have been over 50 fifty miles (80 kilometers) and a very pregnant Mary. The tradition of placing Mary on a donkey for the journey may be fanciful but not unexpected (no pun intended). Speaking of stable… while the texts make no mention of animals present at the birth, given the location of the event, it does not require too great an intellectual leap to suspect that animals would be present in a stable (especially with a full house at the inn). And it is interesting to note that the first visitors to the stable were shepherds who, by occupation, dealt with animals on a daily basis.
All of which is to say… the notion of animals at the manger scene is not that great an imaginative stretch. Which brings me to the subject of… birds. Jane designs and makes our Christmas cards each year and, this year, created a card with a dove as its centrepiece.
The dove is (among many things) symbolic of peace, of love and (in Christian iconography) the Holy Spirit (ie. God).
I decided to extend the bird theme to this post and it didn’t take long to find several carols which reference the presence of birds at the birth. There are several different songs which share the title Carol (alt. Song) of the Birds… including ones of Irish and Spanish* origin.
*I said Spanish… but more specifically Catalan. Most living in the region of Catalonia would regard themselves as quite distinct from Spain and their community is described as autonomous having the status of a nationality. To further complicate matters, one source I read suggested the carol is Andalusian (yet another autonomous nationality) within Spain.
The point here is that the carol’s creation probably dates back to the early 1600’s (hence the ambiguity). Besides the question of origin, the lyrics and melody have evolved in various ways over the years. Perhaps the most famous interpretation was made by Pablo Casals (the renowned Catalonian cellist and conductor) and it has been recorded by many artists including Joan Baez (in her 1966 Christmas album). If you listen to the Baez interpretation (which can be found on Youtube) you will hear a beautiful and plaintive melody sung in a minor key.
This is luthier Alan Carruth with his instrumental arrangement…
Now, for better or worse, when I went looking for carol lyrics with a “bird theme”. I had already decided that I would create my own melody to accompany the lyrics. When I first read this particular translation I was struck by the sense of excitement and joy in the first two verses and the more reflective mood in the final stanza. Only after I finished my recording did I allow myself to hear the traditional carol. While mine is nothing like the melody usually associated with these words, I hope it also captures some of the spirit in the text. First the lyrics…
Song of the Birds
On this most joyful night
The small birds greet the light
A new daybreak is bringing
A light more dazzling far
Than any sun or star
(Than any sun or star)
They proclaim with sweetest singing
(They proclaim with sweetest singing).
The eagle, king of skies
Through the heavens swiftly flies
And cries out the wondrous story
This Jesus born today
Our sin hath swept away
(Our sin hath swept away)
Now He brings us to His glory
(Now He brings us to His glory).
The partridge sings these words
To all the other birds
On stable roof assembling
My nest in here I’ll build
So I can see the Child
(So I can see the Child)
In His mother’s arms trembling
(In His mother’s arms trembling).
And now, my musical setting for this text…
This particular post will be my only submission for December… so with it I would like to wish you all (along with Jane and the grrrrls) peace and joy in this holiday season…
…although it’s been said- many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you.