Christmas Carols, Spanish Style
This afternoon I am going to make song books for Nochebuena, or the Good Night. We Hispanics celebrate Christmas Eve, not Christmas day. We feast with friends and family, the children break open piñatas, and we sing villancicos, or Christmas songs. That's why we need the song books. We go to midnight mass and come home exhausted at 2 a.m.
The frantic opening of presents under the tree, brought by Santa Claus, is something of an afterthought, and in the materialistic abundance that wakes a greedy look in the children, not a very pleasant one.
Now, I love the traditional Christmas carols Americans sing, like everyone else does. They are lovely in the way they indicate the majesty of the occasion: the birth of God himself, attended by choirs of angels singing glorias and hallelujas, joined in exultation by shepherds and even stars. They refer to the triumph of goodness over sin, of light over darkness, and of eternal hope over despair. They bring tears to my eyes, especially when sung by angelic children in red choir robes and white over-vestments. They are, of course, spectacularly better than the silly songs about reindeer and snowmen, and in their acknowledgement of the grandeur of the moment when the infinite intersected with the finite, much better than the songs that simply refer to being with loved ones and the beauty of winter.
The Latin American or Spanish villancico is a different thing entirely, and I wish non Spanish speakers could understand them. Villancicos, which developed in the 15th century in Spain and Latin America, were religious songs sung during feast days. They became wildly popular and were sung in the vernacular, intimate language of the people. They were used to teach elements of the faith and also to promote enjoyment of religion, and were often humorous and boisterous. In them were mixed the sacred with the everyday. The well-known villancicos nowadays are all Christmas songs. They use rhythms and dialects from many regions and ethnic groups, and they leave no one out. One famous villancico negro (or black) written in 1677 by the poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, sings: "tumba la la la, wherever Peter enters, no one remains a slave."
What is most striking to me, in comparing these songs to the traditional American or English Christmas carol, is that compelling mix of the sacred and the everyday. The themes are simple and earthy and in their utter commonplaceness, they are accessible and magnetic. In each song, from every different country, there is an element of tender intimacy with the young couple and the baby that are the source of all this fuss. The utter humanity of the Holy Family is celebrated with enormous affection and compassion, in such a way that we are brought right into the stable in Bethlehem, as participants in the miracle.
The Maria and Jose of the songs are young, scared, fatigued, lonely, cold, and sometimes, in Jose's case, even grumpy! On the way to Bethlehem, we watch them pass. We see the girl-mother, carrying God inside, hunched over on the donkey, and her frantic husband begging for a place to stay, any place at all. We hear them turned away because they might be robbers. Jose tells the innkeeper that his dear laboring wife cannot walk another step, and yet she is "La Reina del Cielo," or the Queen of Heaven. The innkeeper asks, "If she is the Queen, what is she doing all alone in the dark then?" The baby is laid between a mule and an ox and he is so utterly poor he has nothing but hay for warmth. Soon, Maria's hands are red from washing the diapers in the river, and the mice have gnawed holes in Jose's underwear. We are called on to help, to run to the stable, because the cows have eaten the poor hay that warmed the baby and he might die of cold. We watch the young couple fleeing to Egypt, taking turns holding the baby, because their arms get tired. We wish we were there to hold him too.
Sometimes San Jose eats the soup the baby refuses, or grumpily tells Maria, when asked to hold Him, "Quien lo pario que lo tenga," or "She who bore him should hold him." How that brings me right in, remembering the times that my very good husband pretended to be asleep when one of our five infants cried in the night. The mother sings lullabies because she is exhausted and needs the baby to sleep. And through it all, the little baby is our beloved baby, el "queridito del alma" or "little beloved one of my soul." Maria's red hands are "manos de mi Corazon," or "the hands of my very heart." We wish desperately we could dress the baby in velvet, or at least bring him a little blanket. That little family is as close and dear to us as our families around us. He even looks like us: "los ojitos de almendra, piel de aceituna," or "little eyes like almonds, skin of olives."
So on Nochebuena we will sing, of course, about elves and Santa, reindeer and snowmen, because the children know and like those songs. But we will also sing of the young, scared couple and their little baby that shivers with cold. And we will wish we were there. What wouldn't we do for them? They are the beloveds of our souls.