By now, we are all clear, I think, that there are no roses without thorns, and it falls to Tchaikovsky to lead us into one of the darker rose bowers for this week. This carol actually gets sung quite a bit in Lent and around Easter, but, while this is not something I’ve highlighted this year, Advent does actually share a fair bit of common ground with Lent, as the shared liturgical colour hints. Both are times of waiting and (in some traditions) of fasting, and both share a common theme of preparation and repentance. While the repentance theme is generally underlined more strongly in Lent than in Advent, Advent is also when we get a lot of the apocalyptic readings in the Common Lectionary, so the theme is there to be had.
And, after all, while Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, we do so knowing that the end of his story is his death at the hands of the people he tried to help.
All of which is to say that this is not a cheerful carol. Not in the slightest.
I do not speak Russian, but the words in English are as follows:
When Jesus Christ was yet a child
He had a garden small and wild
Wherein he cherished roses fair
And bound them into garlands there.
Now once as summertime drew nigh
There came a troop of children by
And seeing roses on the tree
With shouts they plucked them eagerly.
“Do you bind roses in your hair?”
They cried in scorn to Jesus there.
The boy said humbly “Take, I pray
All but the naked thorns away.”
Then of the thorns they made a crown
And with rough fingers pressed it down
Til on his forehead, fair and young,
Red drops of blood, like roses, sprung.
I’m not even going to try to commentate on that. There is plenty to say, but I suspect you can find what you need yourself. I was going to find you a recording in English, but then I came across this rendition by a Russian choir.
Interestingly, the choir in question is the USSR Ministry of Culture Chamber Choir, and this recording was made in 1988. And that’s something else I don’t even know where to start unpacking. 1988 was a year before the Wall came down, an event that I remember principally as marking the end of my fear that we were all going to die at any minute in a nuclear holocaust, and also as requiring my German teacher to buy lots of new maps. My understanding was that Communist Russia definitely frowned on Christianity (and indeed, on religion in general).
But this beautiful carol is sung with great feeling and evidently with official approval, and my brief foray into internet research suggests that they in fact sang quite a bit of religious music. I wasn’t able to find out much about this choir, and I cannot stress enough how little I know about internal USSR politics, but I find the idea of a state-sponsored choir singing this beautiful, mystical religious music in Russian in the USSR in the 1980s fascinating.