So, busy celebrating the holidays with my parents. Tonight I watch more films (Die Hard the major traditional one for Xmas Eve), and since we’re Italian it’s seafood for dinner. Lots and lots of seafood.
But I wanted to take a moment and share a little about two of my favorite Christmas carols. I suppose the second is more of a ditty than a carol, but it has meaning to me. So, away we go.
Good King Wenceslas
This has always been my absolute favorite of the Christmas carol canon. A simple tune with an uncomplicated rhythm and chord pattern, but a story about a genuinely good man doing a genuinely good thing because…well, because he could, damnit.
As a historical figure, Wenceslas was not a king, but rather the Duke of Bohemia. The “king” bit was appended later because it made him sound more impressive and, to an extent, it reflected his “kingly” behavior. By the time of his death around 935 CE, a number of almost cult-like followings of the man had already cropped up, and his reputation for goodness and just leadership was a major driver of the rex justus concept of the High Middle Ages. In many ways he (or the myth of him) set the standard for kind, noble leadership in the common conception of the thought.
The song itself is a wonderful story about our eponymous hero seeing a poor man gathering wood from the parapets of his castle. This being the Feast of Stephen (the 2nd day of Christmas, or December 26th), Wenceslas calls forward a page to ask about the man. The page tells his monarch (well, his Duke, but we’ll pretend that he’s really a king) that he’s a poor man who lives in the forest. The king calls forth a feast to be prepared that he then carries with him to the poor man’s house through a snow storm. When the page, helping him carry, says it’s too cold, the king insists the page walk in his footsteps so that Wenceslas can block the wind with his body, making it easier for the page to move.
That sort of charity always struck me as what was important about the messages of the holiday season, much more so than any specific religious message. I remember hearing of the great sacrifice God made in the Incarnation during homilies and wondering why it was even necessary. I know why it was necessary for Wenceslas to go feed that man he saw collecting firewood: the man was hungry. He was cold and starving and needed food and heat that the king had in plenty. I also know why it was necessary to deliver the food and whatnot himself: it was a holiday and there was a snowstorm. Wenceslas didn’t want to make anyone else have to go through that if he could avoid it, and made as much accommodation for his page as he could. It’s a story that stuck with me as a result.
The actual music is an interesting story as well. Wenceslas is actually a filk of a 13th century song called “Tempus adest floridum” (“It is Time for Flowering” or, sometimes, “The Flower Carol”) written in a Finnish songbook called Piae Cantiones. The interesting thing about Piae Cantiones is that it was written as a book of secular children’s songs to be used in schools, a fairly unique thing for the time.
Anyway, here’s one of my favorite versions from fellow SCAdian and all-around awesome person Heather Dale, along with the Flower Carol.
Like I said, the second isn’t really a song so much as a ditty, but it’s something I remember my grandmother singing to me as a small child and, as her Dementia set in and her perception of my age became less clear, in my mid-20’s. She passed away a couple of years ago, so this little thing makes me think of her as I sing it to myself.
La Befana, the legend goes, is an old woman who was visited by the Magi on their way to Bethlehem. Of course, Italy is very, very far off the map for people coming from Persia and Africa, but maybe they were actually following a star. Or whatever. It’s a myth, just run with it. Either way, they show up and ask around town for a place to stay, and everybody tells them that La Befana is the best housekeeper in town, but has been incredibly sad since she lost her son many years before. Some stories say to sickness, some say he was kidnapped, my grandmother never specified. The townspeople direct the Magi to La Befana, hoping that visitors will help her.
La Befana lets them in and treats them well. They explain that they are following a star to visit a child who was born to be the savior of all the world and ask her to join them. She refuses and they head out the next morning. But after a day has passed, she begins to regret her decision and even starts to think that this baby being born is actually her own son. So she grabs some toys and heads to Bethlehem, where she gives the toys to Jesus who is so pleased that he makes her mother of all of the children of Italy. So, on Epiphany Eve, La Befana visits the children of Italy to give them presents, filling their stockings with toys and candy if they’re good and coal if they’re bad, and sweeps the floor on her way out (she’s a good housekeeper, after all). If you catch a glimpse of her at work, she will know and smack you with her broom.
The “witch” archetype image is what is most often associated with La Befana. There are some who suggest that her legend derives from an old Roman goddess, Strenua, that was appropriated in true Christian fashion because they liked the idea of a woman who brings toys to good children, but didn’t like the raucous partying and sexy-times associated with La Befana’s less crone-like forerunner.
Anyway, the song was a children’s ditty, usually sung in a simple, bouncy inverted iambic fashion.
La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!
A quick translation, making no attempt to make the syllables fit.
La Befana comes at night
With shoes that are falling apart
Dressed like a Roman
Long live La Befana!
It’s not Donald MacGillavry by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a fun tradition and one that I remember warmly. When I sit by the tree, I still can clearly hear my Nonna singing this with me.
Before I sign off, two more things I want to share. The first, a lot of secular organizations like to put up a specific holiday banner in public spaces around this time of year. It’s designed to be offensive to an extent in order to encourage public spaces to just stop endorsing religion at all, and I get that, but it never sat well with me, as confrontational as I tend to be. Libby Anne discusses this and, while I am less inclined to assume the best from culture warriors on the other side than she is, I agree with most of what she says. Which is why I like this message from Richard Wade at Friendly Atheist and I want to share it with you, my wonderful, brilliant, and kind readers.
And, finally, as I go to enjoy more traditions with my family, I leave you with the profound music of Tim Minchin, sharing a really beautiful Christmas song.
Happy holidays to all of you, and I look forward to a wonderful new year with my friends, my family, and my loved ones. And most especially, I hope to share it with all of you. Goodnight, one and all.