Theological Carolling

The autumn-term closing ceremony in Swedish schools is traditionally held in a church. The country was solidly (if lukewarmly) Christian until quite recently, and Christmas is of course nominally a Christian holiday. But Muslim immigrants have become more numerous from the 80s on, the Swedish Church separated from the state in 2000, and so it is no longer uncontroversial to bring entire school classes to church.

My son’s school, when informing us parents about the ceremony planned for last week, emphasised that though the whole thing would take place in a church, no Christian message would be delivered. This was in my opinion pretty wimpy of the vicar, but such unobtrusiveness is typical of the dwindling Swedish Church. Its theology has long been getting increasingly vague and all-encompassing for fear of scaring any potential members off.

I went there to hear my kid sing, and the promise was held. The vicar in her funny ceremonial robes gave a little speech about lighting candles for this and that, but no mention was made of sin or saviour, heaven or sky guy, manger or star. No spoken mention, that is. Because although a few Swedish Christmas carols have lyrics about eating and drinking (“Hey, old gnomes, fill up yer glasses and let’s be merry”), most are loudly Christian. So we weren’t told about Jesus: instead we all sang about him.

“And across city and countryside tonight
Travel the joyful tidings of Christmas
That born is Our Lord Jesus Christ
Our Saviour and God”

“The heavens resound with words of joy:
Christ has come to Earth,
The Saviour is born unto you”

I wasn’t angry or anything, the singing just felt a little incongruous. It’s not such a big deal: I’ve taught my kids that the mythical figures religious people pray to are simply fictional characters like Mickey Mouse. And I guess any kids from my son’s school with orthodox Muslim parents simply wouldn’t be there for the ceremony. But I wonder what the Christmas carols of 50 years hence will be like. Most of the current ones are already 100 years old or more and largely incomprehensible because of their poetic and archaic language.

Svenska Dagbladet has a big feature story about the changing conditions of the Swedish Church.

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15 thoughts on “Theological Carolling

  1. I took my son to his schools ceremony in a church here in Kungsholmen last friday. My son is six so his was the youngest class. All the years got up in turn and sang a christmas song but most of them were more modern songs – “Last Christmas” by George Michael for instance or “Merry Christmas” by Slade.
    It had the feeling of a religious ceremony but nobody standing up to tell us all that a fictional character wanted us to behave in a particular way (well, apart from the lyrics of “Santa Claus is coming to town”!)


  2. Really, the Birth of the Child and the Star announcing it are psychological and anthropological archetipes of renovation and hope.Let anyone celebrate what they want, Christmas, Chanukhah, Yuletide, as long as they don’t force their views on others. And some Christmas carols are very nice, anyway.
    Happy Holydays!


  3. I guess that singing religious carols was the subtle way to get everyone talking about God without the vicar having to explicitly mention it and possibly make people mad.


  4. Regarding the question as to what Christmas music will be like in the future, I guess it will be the same primarily nineteenth-century texts and music as is cultivated today (perhaps with a few additions and some rediscoveries of earlier items).

    Most people born in Sweden after c:a 1960 live so exclusively within the mindset of popular culture that biblical or classical connotations, to which most (unlike yourself, Martin) are supremely oblivious, just pass them by without much notion being taken. Even at Christmas I think many people really does not think much about it.

    This is certainly the reason (saddening from my viewpoint, of course) behind Christian culture being less scary to people in our generation than to those born in the 30:s and 40:s.

    Merry Christmas and a good start of 2010!


  5. In some cases, my daughter has learned modernised and simplified versions of the old lyrics in school. That’s kind of interesting, when song lyrics start to drift away from their original versions in lockstep with the the continuous large-scale change in the language.

    But some of the lyrics must have been incomprensible to most children even on the day they were written. Natten går tunga fjät runt gård och stuva


  6. Yes, Rosén’s lyrics were of course deliberately archaic and rural, which was what was needed in the canonisation of the West-swedish ostiatim singing tradition – few adults in Stockholm or other parts of south-eastern Sweden would have had “stuva” in their active vocabularly by that time. The text contrasts sharply to the ‘modern’ Neapolitan chromatic melody. This is the opposite to that effect experienced when you here a Piae cantiones melody with nineteenth- or twentieth-century lyrics. The PC melodies and texts themselves, on the other hand, have demonstrated extreme longetivity, in wide-spread use before the 1582 print, then appearing still in C.M. Bellman, Samuel Ödman, not forgetting the boom in England after c.1850, including a place in the 1974 hit single charts with Steeleye span’s version.


  7. Googling, I learn that ostiatim is Latin for “from door to door”. Ostia means “mouth”, which is why the Roman harbour town at the mouth of the River Tiber bore that name. And I wonder about Old Swedish os in the compound aros, “river mouth”.

    Do I understand you correctly, that the door-to-door singing tradition that survives in the annual cult of St. Lucy was a Västergötland/Bohuslän thing?


  8. Yes, it existed in similar form all over southern rural Sweden, but the form used as a model when standardising the Lucia celebration was taken from Västergötland and Värmland.


  9. I predict that in the next fifty years carols will continue to converge around the light-emerging-from-darkness motif at the root of this holiday onto which many religious systems have been grafted, and which is ultimately more enduring. For most people the great Christian carols are only the dry husks of former faiths, much like the Christmas tree or the julebukk.

    In America, the setting up of Christmas trees is probably the widest-practiced ritual observance but nobody knows why we actually do it; it has lost what meaning it had. Nevertheless, archaeologists 500 years from now would be forgiven for believing they had stumbled on a nearly universal tree-worshipping cult with a red-suited paternal deity at its heart. I wonder how many artifacts of ancient religious observances you find were similarly devoid of meaning for their practitioners: my parents buried gold-foil figures in the post holes of their mead hall, so I will too.

    Those of us who find the history of ideas, though necessarily elusive, as compelling as you find your science would be amused that a hardened skeptic like yourself thought enough to comment on a meaningless hymn. Perhaps there’s life in those old words yet.

    Nu hör det svingar i alla tysta rum, sus som av vingar…


  10. I’ve felt something similar about North American carols, many of which are Christian. But an interesting thing about music is how lyrics can turn into just another part of the sound. The songs sound nice, and I wonder how many people singing (or hearing) them today pay attention to the theology.


  11. Personally, I love the traditional carols in English: I figure they are so good, so melodic, because they’re the survivors of a few hundred years of selection to be sung in a limited programme each year. My covivant, however, is Jewish and finds the pervasive Christianity of the culture, especially around Christmas time, a depressing reminder of hundreds of years of persecution. However, as we both became less religious with age, that seems to matter less.


  12. i appreciate some of your comments about wimpy vicars and not being bothered by having to hear about christian beliefs. that’s quite refreshing in an age that demands extreme separation of public and religious life to prevent offense.


  13. No, what I meant was that the vicar should have insisted on talking about Jesus, and the school should thus have been forced to relocate its end-of-term event. Some spine fer chrissakes, you know!


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