Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A New Year Carol - with a note by the Very Revd Fr Simon Aiken

                                  A New Year Carol

Here we bring new water from the well so clear.
       For to worship God with this happy New Year.
         Sing levy dew, sing levy dew, the water and the wine;
        The seven bright gold wires and the bugles that do shine.

Sing reign of Fair Maid, with gold upon her toe,
      Open you the West Door, and turn the Old Year go.

Sing reign of Fair Maid, with gold upon her chin,
      Open you  the East Door, and let the New Year in.

    Note by the Dean of Kimberley: Fr Simon Aiken

     This carol was sung in a setting by Benjamin Britten, early in 2013, at the Royal School of Church Music Summer School in Kimberley, and again on November 22 when we commemorated the Benjamin Britten centenary. The words of the carol are very old and most probably refer to pagan customs which pre-date Christianity. As was (is) often the case, previously pagan imagery becomes embraced into the new religion when it can have a double meaning which teaches and reinforces the new faith without completely irradiating the former much loved nuances.

     As was often the case in pagan religion, the sun plays an important part in this New Year Carol which contrasts the passing of the year with the course of the sun: in verse two the Sun goddess (Fair Maid) has gold (light) on her toe indicating that the whole year has been revealed (full sun - no shadow) and at the west (the place of the setting sun at the end of the day) it is now time to let that year pass. In verse three the gold (light) is only on the chin, ie partially revealed (at the dawning of the day in the east) suggesting that the whole new year has yet to be revealed. 'Levy dew', in the chorus, could be a corruption of the Old English 'levedy' or 'lady', also referring to the sun goddess. The water of the first verse, refers to an old custom where groups of boys would bring fresh water at New Year and sprinkle the hands and faces of those they met in return for a small payment - they would even come into the home very early in the morning and sprinkle the householders who were still in bed! This could be the reference to the doors of the house (in Scotland the pagan tradition of first-footing at New Year involves leaving the house by the back door and entering at the front with bread and coal representing food and warmth for the coming year).

     The carol came into being to celebrate the Annunciation in March - close to the time of the equinox. The mediaeval church allowed the continued use of the carol because the 'levedy' or lady could be easily seen to be 'Our Lady' or the Blessed Virgin Mary who, further, was at the wedding in Cana where the water was turned to wine - a key scripture in the Epiphany cycle leading up to Candlemas. The west and east doors were easily understood as of the church building (rather than a domestic house), and had associations with entrance and beginnings - the font is at the west end, the place where the Christian journey begins, of course using water in baptism: all pagan allusions duly Christianised!

     Yet a further interpretation of the chorus is that 'levy dew' is from the French 'levez Dieu', literally: ‘lift up God’, referring to the elevation of the host and chalice by the priest at Mass. 


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