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Venite, venite

December 21, 2008

In the run up to Christmas, news breaks in the silent night that a perennial favourite Christmas Carol (and my all time favourite) may not be all that it appears to be.

The carol is Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful, and according to Professor Bennett Zon of Durham University it is actually a subversive political message in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, and leader of the Second Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.

News to me, and no doubt to many people who sing it each year.  From a Catholic upbringing, I was more familiar with the Latin version of the carol, and so listening to tortured explanations of how O Come All Ye Faithful was a Jacobean cipher, it all seemed quite implausible.  Professor Zon described how Bonnie Prince Charlie was born near to Christmas, and was compared to a saviour, but it all seemed pretty weak.

The alleged connections are stronger when considered in Latin.  Zon explains that the “Fideles” were faithful Catholic Jacobites.  Venite, venite in Bethlehem is an exhortation to come to Bethlehem, and he explains that Bethlehem was a common Jacobean code word for England.  The most convincing lines are

Natum videte
Regem Angelorum

The pun is in Angelorum, Latin for Angels, and close to Anglorum, Latin for English.  So rather than “Come and behold him, Born the King of Angels”, we have “Come and behold him, Born the King of the English” (the Jacobean Rebellion all being in support of the Scottish Stuart line’s claim to the English throne that had been lost to the Hanoverians).

This prompted some discussion as to whether the carol should be sung now, with the “true” meaning revealed.  I’m not convinced that is the true meaning however.  I would suggest that instead the parallels were spotted and the song adopted by the Jacobeans.  If the Jacobeans created the song as a political anthem of support for a Catholic king, then there is a devil of a job to explain away much of the traditional second verse.

Deum de Deo/God of Gods
Lumen de lumine/Light of Lights
Gestant puellae viscera/Lo he abhors not the Virgin’s womb
Deum verum, genitum non factum/Very God, begotten not created

Taken literally, a reference to the Christian beliefs about Jesus.  Taken metaphorically, difficult to apply to Bonnie Prince Charlie without committing sacrilege and elevating him to the level of God.  With a large Catholic support, it is unlikely the Jacobites would have engaged in blasphemy.

What is the true meaning of the carol?  What is truth anyway?  As with all words, meaning is in the ear of the beholder, and words can bear many interpretations.  The carol can mean a hymn of praise to a saviour born in Bethlehem, it can be an uplifting song that reminds you of Christmas, or it can be a song in support of a historical figure, remembered only in rueful memory by the Scots.  When I sing it at Christmas as I have done every year for as long as I can remember, I know what meaning I will give it.

Merry Christmas to all of you, the readers of Write Anything, and to my fellow writers here.

PS: Christmas is a time of giving, and what better way to give than to help a friend.  My friend Amanda has quit her job to pursue graduate school full time.  At the moment she is in the running to win a prize in a competition and she needs help.  The contest is called “What’s your favourite toy?” and Amanda has a wonderful little story about a cuddly green dinosaur she has had since she was a little girl, that she hopes will still be with her when she gets her PhD.  It is very touching and endearing, and is far better than the current first place story, by a guy who wanted an XBox, won an XBox, so he guesses that is his favourite toy.  Where’s the heart?  Where’s the emotion?

Please consider following this link, and voting for Amanda.  You can vote every 8 hours, and the contest runs through until February, so we need help to get Amanda to number 1, and to stay there.  If you want to help out, click here.

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