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It was the Greeks who invented the genre of the drama, and Greek playwrights produced splendid plays. Christianity forbade the attendance at these “licentious representations of paganism” in the early centuries of its history. In the 10th century, however, on solemn feasts such as Christmas and Easter the priest commemorated the event by interspersing texts from the Gospels in the service of the Mass.

These were known as “tropes” and were usually very brief. Over time, the tropes became longer and were given in verse, though still inserted in the Mass. These little dramas depicted stories from the Gospels, such as the Wise Virgins, the Three Wise Men, the Prodigal Son. They were often in Latin, but sometimes in the vernacular (although the angel, when portrayed, always spoke French!).

As the dramas became longer, these “mystery plays” left the confines of the church and were performed in public places. The clergy were forbidden to act in them, and control spread to the wider community.

The dramas sometimes portrayed the lives of the saints. These plays showed how people should live their lives and were considered to contribute to piety. They were often sponsored by town guilds. The bakers’ guild might sponsor the Last Supper or the Feeding of the Five Thousand; the shipbuilders’ guild The Flood or the Crossing of the Jordan. Some people have likened this to an early form of advertising. 

Away in a manger

The word “crèche” is from the French word for “manger.” The French word comes from the Italian word “greccio.” Greccio was the town where the first manger scene was set up by St. Francis of Assisi, in 1223. Before that time, many churches had built mangers, but these early mangers were covered with gold, silver, and jewels. They were much fancier than the original manger in which the Christ child was laid.

St. Francis wanted people to remember that Jesus was born in a humble stable. He asked a farmer friend of his to help by bringing an ox, a donkey, a manger and some straw to a nearby cave. On Christmas Eve, St. Francis and the people of Greccio met in this cave. By candlelight, they acted out the story of Jesus’ birth. St. Bonaventure writes of that night: 

“In order to excite the inhabitants of Greccio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, he prepared a manger and brought hay and an ox and an ass to the village square. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. Francis stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the holy gospel was chanted by Francis. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, he called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant soldier, who for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an infant marvellously beautiful, sleeping in the manger. This, the blessed Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake him from sleep.”

Voices of joy

Carols were introduced by a Roman Bishop in the third century, who said that an “Angel’s Hymn” should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. Soon after this, musicians started to write carols. However, not many people liked them as they were all written and sung in Latin, a language that the normal people couldn’t understand. This changed with St. Francis. The people in the plays sang songs (canticles) that told the story during the plays. They were all in a language that the people could understand and join in. The new carols spread all over Europe.

In Elizabethan times in England, composers wrote songs very loosely based on the Christmas story, about the holy family. These were entertaining rather than religious songs. They were usually sung in homes rather than in churches. Traveling singers or minstrels started singing these carols and the words were changed for the local people wherever they were traveling. For example, at seaside towns “I Saw Three Ships” was popular.

Perhaps the most loved carol was composed in Germany. In 1818, the organ of the little church in Oberndorf was broken. The local priest, Father Josef Moher had written a poem about the angels announcing the birth of the long awaited Messiah to shepherds on the hillside. The day before Christmas Eve, Father Moher went to see the church organist, Franz Gruber. Within a few hours, Gruber came up with a melody for the poem which could be sung with a guitar. It no longer mattered that their church organ was broken. They now had a Christmas carol they could sing without it. On Christmas Eve, the little Oberndorf congregation heard Gruber and Mohr sing “Silent Night,” their new composition to the accompaniment of Gruber’s guitar.

It took over the world.

Happy Christmas!

Elizabeth McNamer is an assistant professor of religious studies at Rocky Mountain College.

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