God rest you merry

The carol, whose incipit I cite, is quoted, too, in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, and was being parodied already a century before his birth. I think of it as the Ur English Christmas Carol, for it goes back, according to a scholar I once spake with, to those last afterlife moments of Good Queen Mary’s reign, in the 16th century, if not before. The spirit of the carol — the spooky folk melody — comes from that strange place, at the crossover of what is unmistakably mediaeval into what is unmistakably modern. The words change over the centuries, though in this case not much. I think the carol was originally in English. Note that “rest” was a transitive verb. The comma before, “merry gentlemen,” was thus an 18th-century innovation.

I wrote “spooky” for I have so often wondered what would have followed, had the Reformation never happened at all; had it been suppressed, as were the Cathars. The world would be much different today, for things that now seem impossible to us would instead be familiar, and vice versa.

We usually think first of technology, when comparing ourselves to our distant ancestors. But as that is merely cumulative “progress,” and the Catholic Church had been all along more likely to encourage than to discourage it, I can’t see how that could have been so different. Of course we would be “high-tech” today; though still “unmodern.”

Blast furnaces for instance. The archaeologists have now found their fragments within monastic ruins — in England, Holland, Germany, Sweden — from about the year 1100. There was trade in steel balls right across Europe. We may dicker (improbably) over whether the techniques came ultimately from China, but the fact of simple steel-making gives, in itself, the lie to various modernist fairy tales about the Industrial Revolution.

Likewise, so much we have discovered not for the future, but about the past. We want to have invented ourselves. We want to believe our history was inevitable. We want to credit our technology for our greatness. But it hardly counts. The truth is rather in the human element: how this gift of technology is used.

Though I love Charles Dickens, I like to dismiss him as “a commie,” for reasons that might not seem obvious at first. A Child’s History of England, I once threw against a wall. In his genius he pioneered the commercialization of Christmas, and every advertising agency should thank him. For consider, what this commercialization required. Scrooge is converted by sentimental ghosts, into a character of material generosity. The moral hints are materialist throughout. Joy, while it is still remembered, is subtly converted into happiness. Soon we have food stamps, and cash welfare, and shops full of Xmas presents, to buy lest Tiny Tim have a wrang.

Gentle reader may not be surprised if I try to return this gift, and exchange it once again for the mystical. For while the story of the Nativity is easy enough to sentimentalize, and captures the imagination of small children (Jesus speaks to them, child to child), it is the document of an incredible event; without precedent, without compare.

It was more incredible to the old Romans, than to us after so many centuries of trying to assimilate it, until we have extracted it from history, reduced it to a myth, and then a Santa meme so we can have some fun with it.

Yet though not many, there are people who will attend the sacrificial mystery at the Midnight Mass; and who, even today, stand before the humblest crèche in contemplative amazement.

Victorian carols could sometimes recapture this, sometimes deafen us with bombast. The idea that God came down from Heaven, in the form of a defenceless child, to be born in a manger among shepherds and sheep — among the poor and defenceless — can never be fully assimilated. The very idea that the Creator of the Universe would care about us, defied all ancient wisdom. That He would bother to come. That He had not better things to do, than:

“To save us all from Satan’s power, when we were gone astray.”

We children like to ask the “Why?” questions. In this, the greatest of them is answered.