Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Song Lyric of the Day (‘O Come All Ye Faithful,’ With a Coded Message?)

“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
come and behold him born the King of angels.”— “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Latin lyrics attributed to English music teacher John Francis Wade (c. 1711-1786), English translation by Roman Catholic convert, priest, and author Frederick Oakeley (1802-1880)

“O Come All Ye Faithful” has long been one of my favorite Christmas hymns, a clarion call to all Christians to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. Never did I attach any political content to the lyrics.  

Then, the other night, while channel-surfing, I came across Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey. I had never heard of Lucy Worsley before, but over in the U.K. they evidently can’t get enough of this Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces who has stepped away from the dusty books of her daytime job to enjoy healthy extracurricular pastimes as a writer of history books and TV presence.

Henry VIII, one of the figures Ms. Worsley has discussed, might have called this blonde-bobbed “presenter” a “saucy wench,” what with all her delight in dressing up in assorted period costumes for the cameras. Hardly was I done blinking at one of these get-ups when I was floored by one of her contentions: that “O Come All Ye Faithful,” far from being apolitical, represented a coded call to arms for Britain’s beleaguered Roman Catholics in the mid-18th century.

Of Irish Catholic descent myself, I understand how people of the faith might have needed to tread warily before “Catholic Emancipation” arrived in 1829. But as someone with a vital interest in history, I also crave proof of hidden meanings in songs, preferably documented by the written word. So I tend to regard imputations of covert Catholic content in much the same way as contentions that Shakespeare was a practicing, recusant member of the faith: interesting, sure, but requiring a greater connecting of the dots.

Yet here was Ms. Worsley, chatting amiably as a balding, bespectacled male scholar (the kind she most assuredly was not!) turned the pages of a book, explaining that the initial stanza penned by John Francis Wade was a rallying cry for Jacobites awaiting the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart claimant to the throne of Great Britain in the 1740s.

The invocation to fideles in the Latin original was a signal for Catholics on the continent to come home to participate in the Stuart restoration, this scholar claimed. The “King of Angels” was dashing young Bonnie Prince Charlie himself, grandson of the ousted King James II, ready to launch a rebellion to reclaim his rightful throne. ("Joyful and triumphant"? Not quite. But that's a blog post for another time...)

True? I’m not sure. But it does provide a startling new way of looking at a set of holy days and the traditions encrusted to them—and a reminder that, from time immemorial in the secular world, people have looked to religion to deliver them from their everyday despair.

(The image accompanying this post is a 2013 performance of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge, posted on YouTube.)

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