Advent is the season of watching and waiting, but it is also, as the days draw nearer to Christmas, a time of hastening. There are lists of people to write to, presents to think up, to get or make, to wrap and have delivered. Nor is it just the business of getting and giving. There is also a spiritual urgency, our eagerness for the Lord’s coming. “Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ,” goes the collect for the first Sunday of Advent.
And, in the space between our secular and liturgical hurrying, there are carols—many of which immortalize the haste of the Christmas season. “Shepherds come a-running into Bethlehem,” begins a Polish number with a jaunty tune. “There’s a star in the east on Christmas morn, rise up shepherd and follow,” urges an old spiritual. And the lovely French carol calls out, “Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella! Bring a torch and quickly run. Come and see the lovely Jesus.”
I frequently volunteer at my community’s church crèche during services, where I care for a group of two-year-olds. If it’s not too cold, we go on a walk. I usually sing as we go: Music lends itself to our frosty trundles—melody preserves our modest momentum, and distracts the children, lest they remember that their mittens and hats are pesky and constricting, and stop to throw them off. Now that it’s Advent, my walk repertoire is often drawn from those hastening carols and spirituals. Advent hymns (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”) don’t seem appropriate for this setting, so it’s “Leave your sheep and leave your lambs, rise up shepherd and follow,” and off we bravely go.
The children don’t miss a single detail of the season. On our walk we pass a small spruce tree, strung with popcorn and cranberries, standing where there used to be an autumnal pile of gourds. “Oh!” says one little girl, not yet two, clasping her hands in a gesture that would be melodramatic were she old enough to be conscious of it. “Oh! Tree! Oh! Star! Oh!”
And, in the midst of the hurrying and exclaiming, a quiet, gentle refrain emerges. The Polish carol slows: “deeply, now they bow to Mary, wondering how to greet the child.” Jeanette and Isabella are checked at the stable door: “Hush, hush, quietly now he slumbers. Hush! Quietly now he sleeps.” There is a time to be busy, and there is a time to fall still. We can but bow, our gifts forgotten as we wonder, faced by this Wonder, how to greet and honor him. In a few years, the little ones will learn grander Christmas carols and hymns. They will sing about realms of glory, the incarnate deity, and harps of gold. But for now, the shepherds all but tumbling toward Bethlehem, and then stopping, overwhelmed by what they find, are sufficient.
Forty minutes and several songs later, we come in from our walk, and I assist in unzipping and shaking and pulling those troublesome jackets and hats and mittens off. Miss “Oh! Star!” is now Miss Independence, insisting, despite its being patently impossible, that she will “Do it by myself.” As I try to help unobtrusively, I sense a meaningful silence behind me.
I turn to see another child standing stock-still, her jacket off but thrown over her head. Her mittens are on her feet. I can’t see her twinkling eyes, but I can deduce them from the expectant hilarity of her posture. “That’s not where your coat and mittens go,” I tell her what she very well knows, and add, “you silly goose!”
Silly, which is to say foolish, frivolous. But in many of the old carols, the shepherds, and sometimes the beasts around the manger, are called “silly” as well. In a sense now out of use, it meant humble, rustic, perhaps a touch comical. It is also related to the old German selig: happy, innocent, blessed. The shepherds are silly, and we laugh at them as we might laugh at Bruegel’s dancing peasants. But we also sense that, in their innocence, their unselfconsciousness, they are wiser than we. We know that it is right that they arrived at the manger before we did.
The carols that sing of the silly shepherds are themselves silly, in the old sense. In his preface to The Oxford Book of Carols, Percy Dearmer notes that the word “carol” originally referred to a dance. He points out the hilarity at the heart of carols, even those that deal with solemn subject matter. “The typical carol dances because it is so Christian . . . . Indeed, to take life with real seriousness is to take it joyfully, for seriousness is only sad when it is superficial: the carol is thus all the nearer to the ultimate truth because it is jolly.”
Carols, like Reformation hymns, borrow their melodies from dances, drinking songs, or lullabies. Written to accompany mystery plays, they keep both the homely details of the stable and the wonder of the Incarnation in view. The Holy Family is claimed for the human family—Joseph declining to rock the cradle because his hands are stiff with cold, Mary washing the infant Jesus’s linen, the Child crying or laughing. And all this stitched together with scraps of sacred Latin and Greek—Kyrie Eleison, goes the refrain of one soft song about Mary.
The first song of Christmas is the Magnificat. It is the song about things being turned right-way-up at last, of the world arrested in its rush to power and prestige, of the lowly being exalted and the mighty put down from their thrones, of God’s power made incarnate in the womb of a humble girl. The poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—George Herbert, Robert Southwell, Richard Crashaw, John Donne—would delight in this great paradox, turning it over and over, like a multifaceted gem, in their works: “Welcome all wonders in one sight, / Eternity shut in a span, / Summer in winter, day in night, / Heaven on earth, and God in man.” The old carols are not as timeless as Mary’s song of praise, have none of the lyrical virtuosity of later poems, and yet they proclaim the same message. They delight in the shaming of the strong, and celebrate the humble folk who preceded the eastern sages. They are not embarrassed to notice Joseph’s white beard and rheumatic hands, to exclaim over Mary’s beauty, to admonish the innkeeper, to consider what gifts might please the Child, because they understand the immediacy of the story, the sorrow and joy it ought to kindle in every heart.
This is why old carols are perfect for two-year-olds, wholly taken up by the unfolding drama of Christmas. Advent is about anticipating our King. Christmas is the season of letting that King, as a Child, into our hearts. I may be setting the tempo for our walks, but it is the little ones who are leading me, showing me how to dance in anticipation, how to wonder, how to rejoice. Showing me how impossible it is to take both myself and the season seriously.
A seventeenth-century French carol, “The Kingdom,” plays out as a conversation between two young women. Susan has seen a king’s new baby, and has hurried to bring the good news to her friend Catherine. But Catherine is skeptical: If this is a royal birth, then where are the purple and gold regalia, the swords and bugles? Susan explains that this king is a servant, who holds his dominion not by force but by love. He can be found in a manger, under a bright star.
Catherine remains unconvinced: “Still, gossip, I might doubt him maybe, knowing no thing.”
The reply is simple, silly even: “Dear my heart, would you doubt a baby to be a king?”
Veery Huleatt is a member of the Bruderhof Communities, and an editor at Plough Publishing House.