Christmas Oddities?

Have you ever stopped and really compared a lot of Christmas music and traditions with the account in the New Testament? And then blinked and thought something along the lines of “Well, that’s odd. Where did they get that? What is with the cherry tree? Wait, baby Jesus and a dragon? That’s not in my translation!” OK, so the last does come from a book that everyone agreed was a bit too poorly sourced to be included in the canon. But if you start looking at a lot of medieval and Renaissance and later music and art, some really . . . interesting . . . things appear, sometimes as if from nowhere.

Non-Anglican Protestants often look at some Roman Catholic teachings and shake their heads, because Catholicism weights tradition and Scripture somewhat differently than most Protestants do. Without getting into theology too deeply, there are teachings about the Virgin Mary in Catholicism that 90% of Protestants will claim are extra-Biblical, in that they are not explicitly found in the Four Gospels, things like her parents names (Joachim and Anna), the Immaculate Conception (which is not about Jesus, but about Mary being conceived without sin), her childhood as a servant in the Temple in Jerusalem, and her betrothal to Joseph.

Many of the even more unusual traditions come from the 300s-400s and then were embroidered more heavily during the Middle Ages, when people decided to fill in the gaps in the story to varying degrees, and then other people added their own details and so on. A bit like one of my favorite, really strange, Christmas carols ‘Down in Yon’ Forest”, sometimes called the “Corpus Christi Carol”, that starts ‘Down in yon forest there stands a hall/ the bells of paradise, I hear them ring./It’s covered all over in purple and pall/ and I love my Lord Jesus above everything.” And gets odder from there, very medieval, like something from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” As one conductor said, “Some medieval people probably fully believed that such a place really existed, or had existed, and that thorn trees did bloom in eternal memory of the birth. You don’t have to.”

Or “Maria Durch ein Dornwald Ging,”

“Maria Walks Amidst the Thorn,” about how barren trees sprang to life when the pregnant Mary passed by.

Or the “Cherry Tree Carol,” a corruption of a story from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas about infant Jesus ordering a date tree to allow Mary to have fruit during the Flight to Egypt. That got shifted to unborn Jesus telling the cherry tree to let Mary have fruit, and in the process scolding Joseph for doubting her pregnancy. Let’s just say that there’s a reason you won’t find “Cherry Tree Carol” in hymnals, but it is done in concerts and recordings.

What about popular traditions about animals speaking at midnight (“The Friendly Beasts”), flowers that only bloom at Christmas, spirits that come back from the dead at Christmas (the poem “Old Christmas” about a murder comes to mind), or “Good King Wenceslas,” to list a more modern embroidery with a sliver bit of history hidden in it? Logical extrapolations from the idea that the hour of Jesus mirth must have been so spectacularly different and unusual that anything could happen and probably did. And possibly a dig at the powerful without coming out and saying it, like the song about “King Herod and the Cock,” where the cooked chicken on Herod’s plate, “soon thrustened and feathered well/ by the work of G-d’s own hand/ and he did crow full senses three/ in the dish where he did stand.”

Some of the readings in the Anglican “Lessons and Carols” come from the apocryphal books, usually a reading about Joseph’s betrothal and his staff bursting into flower as a sign from G-d that Joseph was the one supposed to be given Mary’s hand.

Some of the unofficial, uncanonical stories are about people being punished for daring to question Mary’s virginity, like in one of the Pseudo-Gospels, where the midwife tries to disprove Mary’s purity and is struck with palsy and partly crippled until she repents and Mary prays for her. There are other things in that particular manuscript that explain why it didn’t make the cut, but it lasted long enough to be recopied, and to appear in some legendary collections.

I happen to enjoy the oddities of Christmas, sometimes just because they are so odd (infant Jesus taming the dragons during the Flight to Egypt, for example). And sometimes I like the music enough to not worry about the theology or implications of the lyrics. It helps if the songs are not in English, because there’s a lot less to explain to the audience.


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