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21 December 2008

Christmas on Vleeptron / the Coventry Carol / the Slaughter of the Innocents

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I'm not a Christian, but what kind of dolt would I have to be to be deaf to the message of Christmas: Rejoicing at the birth of a baby, to poor, tired travellers, in a barn surrounded by animals, heralding Peace on Earth and Goodwill to every Child, Man and Woman.

Vleeptron has already griped about the barriers, difficulties and obstacles the government of Israel, through its military arm the IDF, puts in the path of Pilgrims trying to come to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Suffering along with the Pilgrims are the merchants and hospitality providers -- the innkeepers -- of this small town a stone's throw from Jerusalem. The small-town commerce of Bethlehem has been strangled and asphyxiated by its tortuous imprisonment within The Thing -- the Separation Barrier. There is room at the inn at Christmas -- but just a trickle of the world's Pilgrims.

I dream of a world without soldiers -- Vleeptron's last war, the Second Garlic War, ended 162,404 years ago -- but while they are still a central part of everyone's Life on Earth, there are tasks appropriate for soldiers, even rescue and safeguarding tasks to leave soldiers and veterans with earned pride.

Stopping Pilgrims with M4 assault weapons, examining their visas and passports, enforcing arcane and arbitrary orders by force and fear to seal Bethlehem from the world at its yearly moment of Hope and Peace -- these are humiliating tasks that shame, dishonor and embitter young soldiers. Politicians bereft of vision and decency smear feces on the uniforms of their young soldiers, not for security and defense, but for votes.

I have been lucky this Christmas; in an endless ocean of crappy and commercial music, the song which has chosen to play in my mind repeatedly is a beautiful and haunting song, the oldest Christmas song in English, known as The Coventry Carol.

Around 1350 AD, there arose a practice of trade and craft guilds to write and put on crude little dramas on the steps of the church or cathedral to accompany important holy days, each drama illustrating a Bible story associated with the festival. Boatmakers would naturally act out the story of Noah or Jonah, in their own words, appearing in clothes and speaking in words that would make these stories accessible and familiar to their neighbors. The tailors would perform the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors.

These were called Mystery Plays, and they are the rude, amateur -- and inspired -- beginnings of everything that evolved into English theater. (Before they were banned after the Church of England replaced the Roman Catholic Church and its rituals, the young William Shakespeare saw these church-step festival plays in his hometown of Stratford-on-Avon.)

The most famous collections of these plays which we still have are the York Mystery Plays and the Wakefield Cycle, but the wonderful guildsmen's Bible plays spread through the land, a reflection of similar customs in Western Europe. The most famous of all the Mystery plays, "Everyman," appears to have its origin in an earlier Dutch play, "Elckerlijc."

Music regularly was composed to go with the plays.

The Gospel (Old English for "good news") of Matthew tells the story of Jesus' birth, and the ghastly Slaughter of the Innocents which Matthew says accompanied it. King Herod heard of the pilgrimage of the Wise Men from the East -- astrologers and soothsayers from Persia -- seeking the newborn King of the Jews. Fearing such a child would grow up to supplant him and his lineage on the throne of the Jews, Herod sent soldiers to slay every child who had been born in Bethlehem during the previous two years.

In Coventry, the Shearmen and Tailors acted Matthew's nativity story, and sang a beautiful, mournful song bemoaning the dreadful Slaughter of the Innocents. The Coventry Carol is the oldest Christmas carol still sung in English.

Loreena McKennitt sings This Version, lyrics nearly identical to those written down (by Robert Croo) in 1534, and the tune that was first written down in 1591. The tune contains an old chord resolution called the Picardy Third, or Tierce de Picardie.

The Coventry Carol

Lully, lullay,* Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young to slay.

That** woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and say,***
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

* Sometimes rendered "Lully, lulla".

** Sometimes "Then".

*** Sometimes "sigh" [1], "day" or "may", but oldest known versions use "say".

Here is Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, and King Herod's Massacre of the Innocents.

It is important to realize that such atrocities are not lost horrors of the ancient world, but they still happen. For reasons unfathomable to me, children, even infants, are still murdered under the orders of military and political leaders. In Africa -- and doubtless other places -- children are abducted and forced to become murderous child soldiers, and sex victims of older soldiers.

For 500 years this Carol has expressed the horror decent people feel toward the murder and victimization of children. We have always known we were supposed to protect them, to keep them from all harm. If Christmas has no other meaning, it reminds us of our obligations to children.

* * *

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.

And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,

Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:

And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:

And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,

In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,

Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child's life.

And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.

But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

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