Thursday, December 13, 2018

Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—Santa Lucia

Another day, another Saint.  Today we consider how a Sicilian virgin martyr and a Neapolitan song, became central to a Scandinavian folk custom that looks suspiciously pagan.
In point of fact, no one is exactly sure, but the Feast of St. Lucy—Santa Lucia—observed annually on December 13, is ancient on one hand and surprisingly recent in its Norse guise.
Almost nothing is known about St. Lucy.  She was reported to be the daughter of a wealthy and/or noble family from Syracuse in Sicily in the early Fourth Century.  Syracuse was a sophisticated city originally founded as a Greek city state.  Lucy may have been descendent of the Greek aristocracy, more recent Roman rulers, or both.   
Historically she has been pictured as a blonde, which suggests a Greek origin, although no one knows what she looked like.
Lucy—he name in Latin meant light—was evidently a devout Christian during a time when members of the Church were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire.  The traditional story has it that her pagan mother arranged a marriage to a rich and powerful pagan man.  Lucy protested and vowed to save herself for Christ.  After she prayed for a miracle that saved her mother’s life, her mother relented.  But the jilted suitor was enraged.  

In this Renaisance painting martyred St. Lucy carries the eyes plucked from her head on a tray but miraculously can still see.
 Here the story breaks down into many versions.  Either the swain tortured and killed Lucy, or he ratted her out as a Christian to local authorities.  Those authorities, or the far-off Emperor Diocletian himself, ordered her execution and/or torture.  Depending on the tale her eyes were first plucked out—a story that would later make her the patron saint of the bind—then she was stabbed in the throat with sword while she was proclaiming her love of Christ.  Or she was burned alive, but the fire would not consume her and she continued to testify.  In the end, no matter the details, she was a martyr to her faith and virginity.
Within a century she was the center of a cult venerating her as a saint, centered in Rome.  Veneration of her spread throughout the Empire, which by then was officially Christian.  Her feast day became one of the most important on the calendar.  Many legends sprang up about her and the miracles she performed.
One might assume that the Scandinavian veneration of her feast day dated to the era when the Norse countries were still Catholic.  But although her feast was undoubtedly on the liturgical calendar, there is no evidence of special celebrations during that time, at least by the Church.
Some historians believe that stories of St. Lucy may have entered the folk culture of the north after the Viking Normans conquered the island and established the Kingdom of Sicily in 1160.  As a matter of fact, there is historic evidence of the Normans introducing those stories and elevating the status of St. Lucy’s feast in Britain, where her feast day was thought to coincide with the shortest day of the year, which was pretty close under the old Julian calendar.  Unfortunately, there is no hard evidence that this was communicated to the Normans’ stay-at-home cousins in Scandinavia.
The Feast of Santa Lucia in its current form did not seem to be celebrated until after Norway, in 1537, and Sweden, in 1597 adopted Lutheranism as the state religion.  But Lutherans do not typically venerate saints.
One line of conjecture has it that in response to Luther’s ban on St. Nicholas as a winter holiday gift giver, replacing him with Kindchen Jesus, or Christkind, a German Lutheran cousin.  This theory conjectures that in Sweden young women or girls were robed in white to portray the Christ child and that somehow, over centuries, this morphed into a portrayal of the Sicilian Saint.  On the face of it this seems ludicrous, but stranger things have happened, I suppose.

Most likely veneration of St. Lucy surrounding the coincidence of her Feast Day with the Solstice in the old Julian Calendar was introduced by sailors visiting Swedish ports—or in some accounts rescued from ship wrecks.  Others attribute it to Swedish mercenary soldiers returning from southern wars.  Take your pick.

In a 19th Century card, Santa Lucia is seen bringing her food gifts a dawn to the family home.

 As developed and practiced in Sweden by the early 19th Century Santa Lucia arrives at a home in the dark with a donkey laden with delicacies and small presents.  It was the custom was for the eldest daughter of a family in a white robe for purity, a red sash for martyrdom, and a crown of glowing candles would enter the master bedroom of a home at dawn leading a procession of other women and girls of the family each carrying a candle.  The flaming crown was said to represent the return of light to darkness of the longest day of the year—an idea fraught with pre-Christian, pagan symbolism.  Or, to take a more Christian interpretation, it is meant to symbolize the fire that could not consume St. Lucy in some versions of the tale.
The leading girl with her crown comes bearing gifts of sweets, coffee, and cakes.  She and the others in the procession sing a song about the saint.  In more recent times it is the Neapolitan song Santa Lucia with lyrics adapted locally.  After the gifts are presented to the parents in their bed the girls would go on to sing other songs, usually Christmas carols.
This form of celebration evidently originated in the area around Lake Vänern in the late 18th Century and spread slowly to other parts of the country and eventually to Norway, Finland, Denmark, and areas around the Baltic.  Each region adopted variations to the tradition.
This festival was then a home observance and not part of either church or public ritual
Public observations in Sweden did not begin until a Stockholm newspaper promoted one in 1927.  Now most cities and many schools, elect a Santa Lucia each year for popular public processionals.  The eve of the festival has become a popular party night, particularly with young people and university students. 
In Norway, where the tradition never took as deep a root, the private celebrations of Santa Lucia had nearly faded away in all but isolated and remote rural areas.  But during the Nazi occupation of World War II, the custom was revised as statement of cultural pride.  The symbolism of bringing light into the darkness obviously had political implications.  The collaborationist Quisling government tried to outlaw the practice. Which, of course, only made it more popular. After liberation, public Santa Lucia processionals became popular and the home custom has nearly faded to extinction.

Public Santa Lucia festivals have largely replaced the traditional home observances.
 The Scandinavian countries, despite still having official Lutheran state churches, are today among the most thoroughly secular in the world.  Santa Lucia Day, never an official holiday, has been stripped of virtually all religious meaning and is celebrated as a joyous ethnic festival.  In fact, the neo-pagan symbolism of the occasion has probably only made it more popular than ever.
Scandinavian imigrants brought the custom to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries where it took particular hold in rural areas with large, supportive immigrant populations especially in the cold states of the Upper Midwest—Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Dakotas.  In big cities, even ones with large immigrant communities, the custom tended to fade by the second generation as it assimilated into the general population.
Today some heavily Swedish and/or Norwegian small towns celebrate with the yearly selection of a comely Santa Lucia and a public ritual and those Lutheran liberal arts colleges of Scandinavian origin with an abundance of blond co-eds and a well-developed choral singing tradition make the song central to their Christmas concerts.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—Song to the Lady of Guadalupe

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas, Patroness of the Americas, and most recently Patroness of the Unborn.  An image of her preserved on cloth in a Mexico City Basilica is the object of almost universal adoration in Mexico and among the large Mexican diaspora in the United States.  She has been called the “rubber band which binds this disparate nation into a whole.”  Mexican literary icons have attested to her importance.  Carlos Fuentes said that “you cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe” and Nobel Literature laureate Octavio Paz that “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin of Guadalupe and the National Lottery.
The origin story goes like this.

On December 9, 1531, just ten years after the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortez, Juan Diego, an Indian peasant and particularly pious convert to Catholicism, was walking by the Hill of Tepeyac then outside of the capital city.  A temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of love and fertility, had surmounted the hill but been razed in the Church’s campaign to obliterate traditional worship.  When he glanced up the hill he beheld a maiden who bade him in his native Nahuatl language to build a church on the site in her name.  He surmised that she must be that she must be the Virgin Mary although she did not identify herself.

The Indio peon Juan Diego presents his tilma with the image of the Virgin to Fray Juan de Zumarraga, Archbishop of Mexico. 
Juan Diego hurried to Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the Archbishop of Mexico with his tale.  The Franciscan was impressed with his piety but skeptical of the story.  He instructed Juan Diego to return to the hill and ask the apparition for proof of her identity. The peon returned three more times to the hill over the next two days and the Virgin spoke to him each time. 
He first asked for a miraculous sign.  When he returned home he found that his uncle, who had been dying, was healed. 
On his final trip to the Hill the virgin commanded him to gather flowers at the summit.  These were not native flower, but red Castilian roses blooming out of season.  Juan Diego gathered them in his tilma or cloak and took the bundle to the Archbishop Zumárraga.  When he opened his cloak December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin.
This was enough to convince Archbishop who ordered a chapel be built at the base of the hill where the cloak would be displayed.  Juan Diego, his wife, and his uncle were given leave to build a hovel next to the hermitage of Franciscan fathers sent to attend the shrine and to act as their servant.  He reportedly died there in 1548.
The revered image has been altered over the years, although not the central image of the Virgin on the tilma.  The figure of a dark skinned virgin is four foot eight inches high.  Her gown is a tawny rose tinted color said to recall the Mexican landscape. She is girded by a thin black sash which is taken as a sign of pregnancy. She wears a blue mantle traditionally associated with Mary.  Sharp beams radiate from her suggesting that she is “brighter than the Sun.”  One foot rests on the Moon and the other on a snake’s head.  This has been interpreted as her victory over darkness and triumph over the pagan Aztec feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl and/or the serpent of temptation from the Garden of Eden.
She may have originally had a crown on her head or that might have been added later.  Still later the crown was decorated with gold which deteriorated over the years.  In 1899 the crown was erased either because of the deterioration or to bring the image more into line with the republican sentiments of the people.  The tilma was reframed with the top being brought down just above the Virgin’s head to disguise damage in the process of the erasure.  Other additions over time included stars painted on the inside of her mantle representing the constellations of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, a supporting angel below her, and silver decoration which has also deteriorated.  Despite being centuries old on an unstable medium, however that central image remains remarkably bright.

The peasant army called to arms by Father Miguel Hidalgo and El Grito de Delores marched behind this banner depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe.
 Aside from its singular religious significance the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe has become a rallying point for the national aspirations of the Mexican people, particularly for the Indios and mestizos.   The peon army of Father Miguel Hidalgo after El Grito de Delores marched behind a banner painted with a representation of Our Lady and many soldiers of the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 fought with printed cards of her image stuck in their sombreros.
Although anti-clericism ran deep among many in the 20th Century Mexican Revolution, Emilio Zapata’s army of southern presents and Indians entered Mexico City in triumph behind a Guadeloupian banner.  More recently, the contemporary Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) also in the south named their mobile city Guadalupe Tepeyac in honor of the Virgin.
In the United States banners of Our Lady appeared in the marches and during the strikes of the United Farm Workers, whose leader Cesar Chavez was deeply religious.  More recently it has been carried in demonstrations in support of immigration reform

Veneration at the National Shine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Illinois.
 As I type these final sentences in the wee small hours of the morning an all-night vigil continues in Des Plaines at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  More than 200,000 are expected to visit the Shrine over two days for the largest such veneration in the U. S. 
Today we celebrate with the Song to Our Lady of Guadalupe performed in English by Marilyn Bouvier.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Murfin Winter Holidays Music Festival—Christmas in New Orleans

Although it might not immediately leap to mind, jazz has long been a musical mainstay of the Christmas Season.  Ella Fitzgerald’s holiday songs are among the best.  Bing Crosby may have risen to fame as a movie crooner, but he was regarded as one of the best jazz singers of his time by people who knew what they were talking about.  The Vince Guaraldi Trio brought a California jazz vibe to A Charley Brown Christmas.  For the more adventurous bebop stars like Charlie Parker riffed on Christmas classics.  Even discounting the soporific smooth jazz of Kenny G. and his ilk, a jazz fan can find plenty to love.  But today we are featuring one of the founding fathers of jazz—Louis Armstrong.
Louis Armstrong and Friends—What a Wonderful Christmas was a great compilation album issued by Decca which ought to be in any Christmas jazz fan’s collection.

Louis Armstrong celebrating Christmas at home with his wife Lucile.
All of the Armstrong tracks are fabulous, and feature a variety of settings, including Gordon Jenkins’ lush snows capes for White Christmas and Winter Wonderland, and Benny Carter’s swinging orchestra on Christmas in New Orleans. ‘Zat You, Santa Claus? with The Commanders is a hoot and Armstrong Louis also delivered an infectious Christmas Night in Harlem, and by the time he blew some exuberant trumpet on Cool Yule.
Tracks also featured a bluesy Silent Night with Dinah Washington, The Christmas Song with Mel Tormé, and a rare and hypnotic Peggy Lee tune, It’s Christmas Time Again. Lionel Hampton brought good vibes on the blues number Merry Christmas, Baby, Eartha Kitt joined Satchmo on her signature Santa Baby, and Duke Ellington jazzed up Jingle Bells. Lena Horne joined with Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, and Louis Jordan turned in a bluesy and soulful May Everyday Be Christmas.

Today we are featuring the lead track, Christmas in New Orleans.  By this point in his long career Armstrong had established a pop following as a gritty vocalist on hits like Hello, Dolly and It’s a Wonderful World.  His newer fans were not disappointed on this cut, but Armstrong also delivered a memorable horn break reminding folks that he was above all a horn man.
Armstrong & Friends