This isn’t strictly a Christmas Carol at all. It’s a carol for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which falls just after Christmas and commemorates Herod’s slaying of the infants of Bethlehem. Very Christmassy! But it does turn up in carol books, and I think it’s rather beautiful, so here we are.
This was originally performed as part of a Passion Play at Coventry in the 15th century – this tune is a little later than that, and dates from 1591.
Passion plays told the whole story of the Bible, from Creation to Judgment day… or at least, it told a version of this story – the version you get when you ask each guild in the city to write and perform a scene, and nobody in these guilds speaks Latin, so they are all maybe a trifle hazy on the specifics, and inclined to embroider the scenes with characters and events that were part of contemporary popular worship but perhaps not precisely in the Bible.
I was lucky enough to go to a Passion Play, in York a few years ago, and it was an utter roller coaster of emotion – funny and moving and shocking and sad and joyful and everything in between. Also, Lucifer had a MAJOR role in the play, and was clearly having a whale of a time (unlike Jonah) (sorry) – he was clearly a popular villainous character as far as medieval audiences were concerned.
But one of the scenes they performed was indeed the Massacre of the Innocents, and while I don’t think they sang this, they sang something very like it, and it was absolutely wrenching to watch.
I promise, I’ll sing something more cheerful for you tomorrow. (But I think Advent should acknowledge the hard things as well as the joyful ones.)