It occurred to us a few years ago as we were singing a Christmas hymn in church, reading lyrics without music that were on the screens at the front of the sanctuary, that the hymns—beautiful as they are at Christmas—are sometimes not as good as the poetry or the prose behind them.
We become so accustomed to the pace and structure of the music that the words come from us unthinkingly. If we remove the music and the false structure it imposes on the lyrics, we might find some of our Christmas hymns have different meanings and many of them could be sung year-around. In fact, many could be sung year-around by removing one verse.
If we read hymns instead of singing them, we might find ourselves asking questions about the story that is told in the lyrics and sometimes even wondering about the origins of those lyrics. We’re not much of a student of music but we love it, especially at this time of year, but it seems that the lyrics come first and then somebody writes music for them.
Here’s a f’rinstance. One of the nicest, lightest, Christmas hymns begins with the words, “Bring a torch….” I bet you hear it in your mind right now, just because of those three words. But who is “Jeanette Isabella?”
This is an example of how singing the lyrics changes the lyrics. In this case, the music eliminates a comma. If you read the lyrics of the poem, which goes back about seven centuries to the Provence region of France, you see that it is about TWO girls, not one. The original title was Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle. (We appear to have Anglicized the names of the girls.) Various sources we’ve checked say it originally was a dance tune for the nobility and didn’t show up as a Christmas tune until 1553 and an English version of the hymn wasn’t published until the middle of the eighteenth century.
One interpretation of the lyrics links this Christmas song to the Jewish celebration of Chanukah, the eight-day festival of lights that celebrates, as Chabad.com, puts it “the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality,” a theme with which many Christians identify as they celebrate the birth of Jesus. The website makingmusicisfun.net tells us, “The torches, or candles, of ancient Hanukkah’s Festival of Lights played an important part in Christmas celebrations in Provence and southern Europe,” and calls this song, “a wonderful example of the torch songs of that time.”
“Bring a Torch” is one of those songs that draws the participant into the beauty of the music to the extent that the words are sung but the story they tell is not appreciated. So let’s look at the lyrics (which might be slightly different depending on your faith traditions). We’re going to change some punctuation and some of the structure of the poem for reading-out-loud purposes.
“Bring a torch! Jeanette, Isabelle! Bring a torch!
Come swiftly– and run! Christ is born!
Tell the folk of the village (that) Jesus is sleeping in His cradle!
Then we change from excitedly telling these two young girls to grab their torches on this night and dash into the village telling the villagers to approach in haste—but quietly. Adore the child but do not create a disturbance. He is sleeping the sleep of the newborn. And although the song does not refer to his mother, she also probably is resting after the strain of childbirth.
Hasten now, good folk of the village. Hasten now, the Christ Child to see. You will find Him asleep in a manger. Quietly come and whisper softly.
Ah, ah, beautiful is the mother, Ah, ah, beautiful is her Son.
Hush, hush, peacefully now He slumbers. Hush, hush, peacefully now He sleeps.
We have seen a translation of the early French lyrics that places heavier emphasis on urging villagers to not disrupt the rest of the child and his mother. They’re harsher than the more familiar lines of the hymn. We don’t recall singing or hearing these words but this part of the poem begins with noise and disruption. Perhaps it is Joseph who asks, or maybe an angel–the wording is not clear.
Who is that, knocking on the door?
Who is it, knocking like that?
And someone in the crowd gathered outside answers:
We’ve arranged on a platter lovely cakes that we have brought here!
Knock! Knock! Knock! Open the door for us!
Knock! Knock! Knock! Let’s celebrate!
We can envision Joseph cracking the door open and slipping out to confront the crowd. Speaking in a loud whisper, he tells the villagers:
It is wrong when the child is sleeping. It is wrong to talk so loud. Silence, now as you gather around lest your noise should waken Jesus.
And as the crowd heeds his wishes, he opens the door and reminds them as they go in:
Hush! Hush! see how he slumbers.
Hush! Hush! see how fast he sleeps!
Softly now unto the stable,
Softly for a moment come!
Look and see how charming is Jesus,
Look at him there, His cheeks are rosy!
And we hear the whispered voices of the people as they file through the room:
Hush! Hush! see how the Child is sleeping;
Hush! Hush! see how he smiles in dreams!
We still don’t know who these two girls are or were. Perhaps the names were plucked out of the air by the original writer of the poem to fit the meter of the poem. But the more popular version seems to rely on a painting by Georges de La Tour (1593-1652), a French Baroque artist who did a lot of religious scenes lit by candlelight. The story behind his painting is that Jeanette and Isabella (Isabelle in the French lyrics) are milk maids who have gone to the stable to milk the cows and find Jesus has been born there. We don’t know who tells them to light the torches and spread the good news in the village. But we are told the custom remains in France for children to dress up as farm folks and as they go to midnight mass, they sing the song that begins, “Bring a torch….”
If you want to take the time today—if you have the time today—and you have a hymnal in your home, you might want to read some other hymns. It might be hard because there will be the tendency to read them the way the music has them sung. But you might find reading hymns as poetry or prose is interesting and might even add a new dimension to this day for you.
Take a look particularly at “Joy to the World” and ask yourself after reading it why this song could not be the opening hymn in worship at any time of the year.
We hope we have not spoiled your enjoyment of the music of Christmas with this little excursion that began by wondering who Jeanette Isabella was. Remember that our word Psalms comes from a Greek word that means “instrumental music” and the words that go with it.
Let all of us, regardless of our faith tradition, hope on this day that light will prevail.