So what does it mean, and (leading question here) are there any interesting facts about the song's background? “Personent” means to resound or resonate, literally “to sound through.” “Hodie” shows up in many Latin Christmas carols; it simply means “today” or “this day.” So the title means something like “let resounding happen today.” And who is doing this resounding? Children. “Voces puerulae” means “puerile” or young voices. Well, that would make sense, wouldn't it? Christmas has lots of associations with children, beginning with the Christ child. We all want our children to have wonderful memories of family celebrations and to get the presents they want.
The association with children in this song, though, is pretty dark. The original text seems to have been addressed to St. Nicholas and sung on his saint's day, Dec. 6, with the first line saying, “Make a thunderous noise from all the churches on this day of great joy.” But since Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, among other groups, and since his saint's day is so close to Christmas, the song was changed to reflect another day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, on Dec. 28. If you read the commentaries on last year's concert you'll remember our selection the “Coventry Carol” with its strange references to slain children. The source of that story is in the Gospel of Matthew, where we're told about Herod's killing all children under the age of two after the Wise Men come to him looking for “the King of the Jews.” The feast day commemorating that massacre came to be a time when children got to stand in for the adults, with a “boy bishop” being put in the place of the adult one and boy choristers replacing the men in the choir stalls.
The text has an unusual repetition of syllables within each verse: “vir, vir, vir,” “dit, dit, dit,” “thus, thus, thus” and “o, o, o.” There seems to be an idea (I don't think I want to state it any more strongly) that these repeated syllables originally represented three children whom the saint helped out in various legends, the most famous being about three girls who were too poor for dowries and were going to be sold into prostitution by their father. St. Nicholas threw purses full of gold into their windows or, alternatively, down the chimney. There's even a Sweeney Todd-ish take on the story, with children being murdered and either pickled in barrels as ham or baked into meat pies. St. Nicholas brings them back to life. And of course he's the original Santa Claus, known for going about giving gifts of all sorts.
The legends of St. Nicholas and the riotous changing of roles between adults and children don't enter the actual text of the song, though. Instead, it sticks pretty closely to New Testament doctrine. I would love to go through it line by line but will limit myself to the ones with repeated syllables. The first one is pretty obvious: the “virgineo” is Mary. The “perdit spolia” line refers to “lost spoils” by the “Princeps Infernorum,” or Satan, the Prince of Hell, those spoils that he has lost being the souls of men. “Thus” means “incense,” one of the three gifts of the Magi. (If you know anything about Roman Catholic or Anglican ritual you'll remember the “thurible” that holds the smoking incense and is swung back and forth during a service; that word is from the same Latin root as “thus.”) “Ideo” means “for that reason” or “and so.” A neat little play on words here, “ideo” and “Deo.” (I can't resist mentioning the word “involvitur,” which refers to the swaddling clothes that the baby Jesus was wrapped in: you can see the word “involve” there. We still say, “I got all wrapped up” to mean “I got all involved.”)
It's quite fitting that we're using this carol as our processional, isn't it? Just imagine the entrance of the children into a medieval cathedral, holding candles and singing. A very legitimate form of time travel!