LET us imagine Christmas Day in a mediaeval town of Northern England.
The cathedral is only partly finished. Its nave and transepts are the work of Norman architects, but the choir has been destroyed in order to be rebuilt by more graceful designers and more skillful hands.
The old city is full of craftsmen assembled to complete the church. Some have come, as a religious duty, to work off their tale of sins by bodily labor. Some are animated by a love of art –simple men who might have rivalled with the Greeks in ages of more cultivation. Others, again, are well-known carvers brought for hire from distant towns and countries beyond the sea. But to-day, and for some days past, the sound of hammer and chisel has been silent in the choir. Monks have bustled about the nave, dressing it up with holly boughs and bushes of yew, and preparing a stage for the sacred play they are going to exhibit on the feast-day.
The celebration of Christmas is not like the Feast of Corpus Christi, for now the market-place stands inches deep in snow, so that the Miracles must be enacted beneath a roof instead of in the open air. And what place so appropriate as the cathedral, where poor people may have warmth and shelter while they see the show? Besides, the gloomy old church, with its windows darkened by the falling snow, lends itself to candle-light effects that will enhance the splendor of the scene.
Everything is ready.
The incense of morning mass yet lingers round the altar. The voice of the friar, who told the people from the pulpit the story of Christ’s birth, has hardly ceased to echo. Time has just been given for a mid-day dinner, and for the shepherds and farm lads to troop in from the countryside. The monks are ready at the wooden stage to draw its curtain, and all the nave is full of eager faces. There you may see the smith and carpenter, the butcher’s wife, the country priest, and the gray-cowled friar. Scores of workmen, whose home the cathedral for the time is made, are also here, and you may know the artists by their thoughtful foreheads and keen eyes.
That young monk carved Madonna and her Son above the southern porch. Beside him stands the master-mason, whose strong arms have hewn gigantic images of prophets and apostles for the pinnacles outside the choir; and the little man with cunning eyes between the two is he who cuts such quaint hobgoblins and the gargoyles. He has a vein of satire in him, and his humor overflows into the stone. Many and many a grim beast and hideous head has he hidden among vine-leaves and trellis-work upon the porches. Those who know him well are loath to anger him, for fear their sons and sons’ sons should laugh at them forever caricatured in solid stone.
Hark! There sounds the bell. The curtain is drawn, and the candles blaze brightly round the wooden stage.
What is this first scene? We have God in Heaven, dressed like a pope with Triple Crown, and attended by his court of angels. They sing and toss up censers till he lifts his hand and speaks. In a long Latin speech he unfolds the order of creation and his will concerning man. At the end of it up leaps an ugly buffoon, in goatskin, with rams’ horns upon his head. Some children begin to cry; but the older people laugh, for this is the Devil, the clown and comic character, who talks their common tongue, and has no reverence before the very throne of Heaven. He asks leave to plague men, and receives it; then, with many a curious caper, he goes down to Hell, beneath the stage.
The angels sing and toss their censers as before, and the first scene closes to a sound of organs. The next is more conventional, in spite of some grotesque incidents. It represents the Fall; the monks hurry over it quickly, as a tedious but necessary prelude to the birth of Christ.
That is the true Christmas part of the ceremony, and it is understood that the best actors and most beautiful dresses are to be reserved for it. The builders of the choir in particular are interested in the coming scenes, since one of their number has been chosen, for his handsome face and tenor voice, to sing the angel’s part. He is a young fellow of nineteen, but his beard is not yet grown, and long hair hangs down upon his shoulders. A chorister of the cathedral, his younger brother, will act the Virgin Mary.
At last the curtain is drawn.
We see a cottage room, dimly lighted by a lamp, and Mary spinning near her bedside. She sings a country air, and goes on working, till a rustling noise is heard, more light is thrown upon the stage, and a glorious creature, in white raiment, with broad golden wings, appears. He bears a lily, and cries, “Ave Maria, Gratia Plena!” She does not answer, but stands confused, with down-dropped eyes and timid mien. Gabriel rises from the ground and comforts her, and sings aloud his message of glad tidings.
Then Mary gathers courage, and, kneeling in her turn, thanks God; and when the angel and his radiance disappears, she sings the song of the Magnificat, clearly and simply, in the darkened room. Very soft and silver sounds this hymn. Through the great church. The women kneel, and children are hushed as by a lullaby. But some of the children at the rear, and apprentice-lads begin into think it rather dull.
They are not sorry when the next scene opens with a sheepfold and a little camp-fire. Unmistakable bleatings issue from the fold, and five or six common fellows are sitting round the blazing wood. One might fancy they had stepped straight from the church floor to the stage, so natural do they look. Besides, they call themselves by common names “Colin and Tom Lie-a-bed and Nimble Dick. Many a round laugh wakes echoes in the church when these shepherds stand up, and hold debate about a stolen sheep. Tom Lie-a-bed has nothing to remark but that he is very sleepy, and does not want to go in search of it to-night; Colin cuts jokes, and throws out shrewd suspicions that Dick knows something of the matter; but Dick is sly, and keeps them off the scent, although a few of his asides reveal to the audience that he is the real thief.
While they are thus talking, silence falls upon the herdsmen. Soft music from the church organ breathes, and they appear to fall asleep.
The stage is now quite dark, and for a few moments the aisles echo only to the dying melody. When, behold, a ray of light is seen, and splendor grows around the stage from hidden candles, and in the glory Gabriel appears upon a higher platform made to look like clouds. The herdsmen wake in confusion, striving to shelter their eyes from this unwonted brilliancy. But Gabriel waves his lily, spreads his great gold wings, and bids good cheer with clarion voice. The shepherds fall to worship, and suddenly round Gabriel there gathers a choir of angels, and a song of “Gloria in Excelsis” to the sound of a deep organ is heard far off. From distant aisles it swells, and seems to come from heaven. Through a long resonant fugue the Christmas Day glorifies, and as it ceases with complex conclusion, the lights die out, the angels disappear, and Gabriel fades into the darkness.
Still the shepherds kneel, rustically chanting a carol half in Latin, half in English, which begins “In dulci Jubilo.” The people know it well, and when the chorus rises with “Ubi sunt gaudia?” its wild melody is caught by voices up and down the nave. This scene makes deep impression upon many hearts; for the beauty of Gabriel is rare, and few who see him in his angel’s dress would know him for the lad who daily carves his lilies and broad water-flags about the pillars of the choir. To that simple audience he interprets Heaven, and little children will see him in their dreams. Dark winter nights and awful forests will be trodden by his feet, made musical by his melodious voice, and parted by the rustling of his wings.
The youth himself may return to-morrow to the workman’s blouse and chisel, but his memory lives in many minds and may form a part of Christmas for the fancy of men as yet unborn.
The next drawing of the curtain shows us the stable of Bethlehem crowned by its star. There kneels Mary, and Joseph leans upon his staff. The ox and the ass are close at hand, and Jesus lies in jeweled robes on straw within the manger. To right and left bow the shepherds, worshiping in dumb show, while voices from behind chant a solemn hymn. In the midst of the melody is heard the flourish of trumpets, and heralds step upon the stage, followed by the three crowned kings. They have come from the Far East, led by the star. The song ceases, while drums and fifes and trumpets play a stately march. The kings pass by, and do obeisance one by one. Each gives some costly gift; each doffs his crown and leaves it at the Savior’s feet. Then they retire to a distance and worship in silence like the shepherds.
Again the angels’ song is heard, and while it dies away the curtain closes and the lights are put out. The play is over, and the evening has come.
The people must go from the warm church into the frozen snow, and crunch their homeward way beneath the moon. But in their minds they carry a sense of light and music and unearthly loveliness. Not a scene of this day’s pageant will be lost. It grows within them and creates the poetry of Christmas. Nor must we forget the sculptors who listen to the play. We spoke of them minutely, because these mysteries sank deep into their souls and found a way into their carvings on the cathedral walls.
The monk who made Madonna by the southern porch will remember Gabriel and place him bending low in lordly salutation by her side. The painted glass of the chapter-house will glow with fiery choirs of angels learned by heart that night. And who does not know the mocking devils and quaint satyrs that the humorous sculptor carved among his fruits and flowers? Some of the misereres of the stalls still bear portraits of the shepherd thief, and of the ox and ass who blinked so blindly when the kings, by torch light, brought their dazzling gifts.
Truly these old miracle-plays and the carved work of cunning hands that they inspired are worth to us more than all the delicate creations of Italian pencils. Our homely Northern churches still remain, for the child who reads their bosses and their sculptured fronts and thinks of those who made fine art of high theology.
–John Addington Symonds
The Unbroken Song
I HEARD the bells on Christmas Day,
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good- will to men!
–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow