Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Coventry Carol

"The Coventry Carol" always seemed a terribly odd, and terribly eerie song for the Christmas season, given that Christmastime — as one commentator on the Sandy Hook tragedy poignantly lamented — is supposed to be joyful. Full of good cheer. This particular carol, however —the sole survivor of a now-lost 16th-century mystery play— tells an important part of that story. A bleaker part. It is sung from the perspective of a mother lamenting the loss of her child, one of many slaughtered on Herod's orders: 

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny Child,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Herod, the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

On this day, as the updates on the incomprehensible Sandy Hook killings continue to come in — and as the press performs their shameful, but predictable, pandering for ratings by dwelling on the killer's story — I am struck by the fact that while we know and remember Herod for the awful orders that he gave, we have no names of those he ordered to be killed. We only know them by their epithet: the Innocents. Little children killed on the orders of — according to the stories that come down to us — a single, scared, hubris-addled man. 

And yet, though we have no names for the children of this legendized narrative, their story survives and is told again and again. In a gospel. On the church floor of Siena's Duomo. In countless other artistic renderings. In medieval mystery plays. In "The Coventry Carol." Their deaths are inextricably wrapped up in the Christmas season, and they remind us of the profound sadness that can, and does, course through the clamoring joys of the season. 

Its haunting melody gently challenges the very idea that Christmas is supposed to be filled with simple joy. I've grown to strongly distrust the word "supposed" and its cousin "should." Having spent the better part of a very brutal year chiding myself because I "should" be happier, I can definitely attest to how inertia-inducing (even damaging) the word can be. The fact is, for many people -- certainly the survivors and the families of the innocents killed this week -- this time of year could not be further from joyful. This time of year, for them, has become something to be survived, and it becomes so at least in part because of the cultural pressures that insist on joy as the only acceptable feeling of the season. 

"The Coventry Carol," however, reminds those who suffer in this time that they are certainly not alone. That a long time ago, as magi came to Bethlehem to find a babe in a manger and rejoice in the finding, and as hosts of angels sang of his birth to bedraggled shepherds, there were also many families weeping for a loss too profound and too final to comprehend. It forces those of us fortunate enough to experience joy at this time of year to remember those with bleaker stories to tell. And, hopefully, to remember to be that much more grateful for our joys because they are so very fragile. 

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