Coventry Carol

When I was growing up, I got to spend quite a few Christmases at my grandmother’s house in Colorado. Each year, she would bring out the collection of Christmas records, and play them on her great big stereo, the kind that’s about the size of a buffet table. It had a phonograph inside that could take a stack of records. I used to enjoy watching the mechanisms in action when it would change records; the arm with the needle would lift and move back slowly, and a single record would be dropped from its position in the stack above the turntable before the arm would reposition itself and lower the needle once more.

I didn’t know any of the identities of the albums in the Christmas stack, but I know at least some of these were recordings of chorale ensembles that included my grandfather. (He was a baritone, I believe.) I loved the songs from those albums, which included traditional carols as well as more “modern” holiday songs. I knew most of the songs from other places, whether it was “Silent Night” or “The Little Drummer Boy.” But there were two favorite songs that I never heard anywhere other than on my grandmother’s phonograph: “I Wonder as I Wander” and “Coventry Carol.”

“Coventry Carol” was always a particular favorite. I have always been a sucker for a melancholy tune in a minor key, even though I couldn’t have told you what that was when I was 7 or 8. For that matter, I didn’t know what it was called. It just sounded so pretty to me, so lullaby-like, with its “by by lu-lee lu-lay” and “little tiny child.”

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I rediscovered this song, having used the magic of the internet to track down the song title. A couple of versions made their way onto my Christmas playlists, shuffling in with the cheery holiday tunes and more somber traditional carols. It’s still one of my favorites.

I recently looked up the lyrics to the song, having never really listened to them.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.
By, by, lully, lullay.

I had always assumed, as I think most people hearing the song at Christmastime do, that the “little tiny Child” was the baby Jesus. Really, though, the song is from a 16th century pageant from Coventry, England, about the Slaughter of the Innocents, in which King Herod is said to have ordered the murder of young male children in Bethlehem:

In The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, this gentle lullaby was sung by the women of Bethlehem to their babies, urging them to “Be still, be still, my little child,” just before the unwilling soldiers of King Herod came to slaughter their infants in Herod’s attempt to eliminate a competitor, the newborn King of the Jews. In the liturgical calendar, those children are commemorated on December 28, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

It’s hard for me to express how this story affects me now that I am a mother, and especially with a new baby. I sometimes get choked up singing some of the lines, when I pay attention to the words, as I imagine mothers grieving the loss of their small children.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Many believe that the Slaughter of Innocents was fictitious. Whether or not that story is true, it is sadly true that there have been far too many times, both in ancient and recent history, when young children have fallen victim to the senseless tides of war and politics. Thousands of innocents die each year from violence or from hunger or from preventable poverty-related illness¹. And countless mothers and fathers forever mourn their loss:

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.²

So now I see the Coventry Carol, the beautiful lullaby of a Christmas song from my childhood, as a song of mourning and remembrance. I see it also as a reminder that there is much work still to be done to protect the lives of the innocents.


¹ According to Unicef, “25,000 children die every day from preventable causes.”

² Typically, the lyrics show the words “Thee” and “Child” capitalized, as if referencing a deity. However, I choose to leave them here in lower case, as I feel the words better represent the common children about whom the song was written. Full lyrics can be found at sites such as this one.

Note: I drafted this post about a week ago, in conjunction with my contribution of a song to the 2008 Blogger Christmahanukwanzaakah Online Holiday Concert, at Citizen of the Month. It seemed a bit gloomy to post in conjunction with Neil’s festive event, so I decided to hold off. Today, December 28th, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which seems a fitting date to beat you over the head with my gloominess.

Incidentally, I saw another post about Coventry Carol just yesterday, “The Children of Coventry’s Carol” at The Task at Hand, a thoughtful and beautifully reflective essay.

16 thoughts on “Coventry Carol

  1. So, now there are two of us at least, reflecting on the beauty of this carol and the relevance it still has for us today. Thank you so much for referencing my essay, and thank you, too, for your reflections – amazing how closely our thoughts paralleled.

    Unlike Kyla, I don’t experience it as sad, although I can’t find the right word for my feelings. Haunting, perhaps, or even gripping.
    I went looking today for more on Coventry, and discovered a video of Christmas bells being rung from the tower in the bombed-out portion of their Cathedral. In a way, that’s what this carol feels like to me – bells, finally overcoming bombs.

    Best wishes for the season, and for the New Year!

  2. this is in some of the books of carols we own, but I don’t remember ever hearing it, so we always skip over it. (After all, we have enough trouble finding the tune on the ones we know.) Now I’ll be sure to learn it. Thanks for this interesting post.

  3. I like your take on the Coventry Carol, sad though it is. If it is Mary singing to the Christ Child, then she knows he lives while others died for him and that is even sadder, because she also feels, though does not yet know, that He will die for them.
    Apocryphal or not, the slaying of the children has always wrung my heart.

  4. I love that carol and also remember it from my childhood even though I haven’t heard it in a while. I had no idea it referenced the slaughter of the innocents. Thank you for this.

  5. We actually played that carol yesterday, and I find it a grippingly sad day, too – this reminder of the horrors of child death in the midst of a festive time.

  6. I’ve never given a moment’s thought to those lyrics. Amazing. Makes you wonder what else you’re missing, doesn’t it?

    Very sad. Very teary. Need a Kleenex….

  7. Oh, my. I had no idea. I love that carol, too, but with no religious education at all, well, this whole aspect had escaped me. That is horrifying, and makes this carol eerie as well as beautiful now. I totally have the goosebumps, and won’t hear it the same way again!

  8. Hello,
    Found my way here from Under The Mad Hat.

    Coventry Carol is probably my favourite carol – I’m an early music fan :-)

    I didn’t know the history of it, so your analysis is very interesting. Not sure if I’ll be able to sing it without sobbing, now though. ;-)

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