he day was a cold one. The rooftops on Main Street in Flers, the town where I attended high school, were lightly capped with snow. Snow is rare in this area of Normandy; so rare, in fact, that this mid snowfall was enough to suspend all bus traffic, meaning that school was closed.
It was lunch break in Flers, on this rue du 6 juin, so named in honor of the Allied landings on D-Day in 1944. The buildings, all built in the distinctive post-World War II style, were constructed with concrete from diplomatic alliance programs, namely the US-funded Marshall Plan. Not too long after being decked out with new buildings, Flers, on being twinned to Charleston, North Carolina, decided to pursue its American connection.
As I walked, I looked at these buildings — around Christmastime, their charm shows differently — and whistled a tune that had been stuck in my head. “Silver Bells.”
The tune brought to mind Christmas carols in general, those distinctive melodies which bind everybody to this season in one way or another. Besides the individual links that I, or anybody else, may have to them, there are other, seldom-explored connections.
Christmas carols come from unexpected places; they are among the most vibrant testimonies we have of times long gone.
Over in the distance, I could see side of Flers’ main church, Saint-Germain, destroyed and rebuilt after the war on the model of Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral. I thought of “Adeste Fideles.” Translated in English as “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” it is a staple of Christmas repertoires throughout the Western world. Its lyrics are unquestionably religious, but they may also connote something other than the birth of Christ.
The Anglo-French composer John Francis Wade is one of the carol’s alleged authors. The earliest publication we have of the song comes from 1751. Wade joined a 1745 uprising spearheaded by the Jacobites, a movement aiming to reinstate the royal Stewart line on the English throne. The Stewarts had a newborn heir at this point, nicknamed Bonnie Prince Charlie. The uprising failed, but this did not stop Wade from reclaiming the throne for him, by veiling his support in a religious work while in exile in France. This work became “Adeste Fideles.”
Without a doubt, Wade wrote the song to glorify God. But many of the Latin words, even the “fideles” in the title, are open to interpretation. The word “dominus” closes each chorus of the carol, yet the word “Christus” is absent, and any direct reference to Christ was added in the English translation. Wade had a different kind of “faithful” in mind.
Pondering this, I reached the bottom of the street. I reach the bottom of the street. On the corner of the second pharmacy (the abundance of pharmacies is commonplace in French towns), there stands a marble plaque from 1948. It commemorates the laying of the first stone in the reconstruction of Flers, three years after the war’s end. This area was agonized by the war, particularly by the strategic Allied bombings which demolished entire towns, such as Condé-sur-Noireau, just five minutes away, and St-Lô, known as the “capital of ruins.”
This Battle of France, as it was called, succeeded the bombings in the United Kingdom between 1940 and 1941 as the German army carved through Europe. The blitz stormed cities like London, Liverpool, and Coventry.
“The Coventry Carol” was often referenced by my English stepfather. A bleak carol, it tells of the slaughter of the Jewish newborns by King Herod, who feared that the prophesied king would usurp his crown. First performed at the Shearmen and Tailors’ Christmas pageant in the 16th century, it is sung as a lullaby from the perspective of one of the slaughtered children’s mothers. It is hard to imagine a piece more steeped in tragedy, as it wasn’t until December 1940 that it was brought to a larger audience. A performance of it, in the bombed ruins of the city’s cathedral, was recorded for the BBC Empire Christmas broadcast.
This is an anomaly in an otherwise bright English Christmas lineup. Not so, however, in France. I found most of the French carols suggested by the priest and choirmaster at our church to be quite dour. They seemed incongruous alongside the other carols, which were French adaptations of English carols. My qualm about this gave way to an interesting exchange with him. As a compromise, the priest agreed to ask the organist to play the carols at a quicker pace to avoid them sounding, as my stepfather quipped, “like dirges”.
Ten Christmases ago, he sang a solo of one of the happier-sounding French carols, “Minuit, Chrétiens” (known in English as “O Holy Night”). The lyrics were written by a Jewish Socialist, Placide Cappeau, but the song is neither political nor contrary to the spirit of Catholicism.
Yet, Cappeau’s religious and political affiliations brought on a nationwide ban on the song instored by the French Catholic Church. Though ban was eventually repealed in light of the song’s lasting popularity, it made evident the rampant propagation of anti-Semitism and hatred of “Judeo-bolchevism” within the Church. Under Maréchal Philippe Pétain and his Vichy Régime, the French government under Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1944, these principles became law, encouraged by alliances with the Catholic Church. They were reinforced when France began collaborating in the Holocaust in 1942. The Vichy government was dismantled during the Liberation of France, which freed towns such as Flers.
Faced with the pre-apocalyptic atmosphere, provoked by the state of affairs between the Unites States and the USSR, many artists pleaded for peace. The former French soldier Noel Regney wrote a piece entitled “Do You Hear What I Hear?.” Loosely based on the Nativity, it became a Christmas standard after being covered by Bing Crosby, Mahalia Jackson, and Bob Dylan, among others.
Nearing the end of my walk, I mused on the stories behind these carols, why they matter, and how those who sing them become historians and history-makers in their own right. Christmas carols are synonymous with peace, but many have emerged from war and despair. They make up the mosaic which every writer can explore and which, far from ever being understood, presents itself each year as more and more of a mystery.
No matter your belief, Christmas is acknowledgement of mystery, in all of its tragedy, but perhaps more importantly in its beauty.
And then I made for the bookstore, only to find the door locked. But the woman who works there let me in, anyway, in spite of it being her lunch break.
I thanked her, and began to rifle through the shelves in search of a Christmas present.