On 16 January 1677, the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued a rescript in response to the complaints filed by the ceremoneer of Seville, Don Diego Díaz de Escobar. One of the issues Díaz de Escobar reported was the custom of celebrating the misas de aguinaldo with Gloria and Credo and with only one collect, wherein layfolk joined the choir in singing carols that provoked laughter. The Congregation called this, and all other practices quoted, an abuse “repugnant to the rubrics and to the opinions of those to whom these were related,” and “ought to be destroyed altogether.”
So, when the rescript arrived in the Philippines, the archbishop-elect of Manila, Fray Felipe Fernández de Pardo, wasted no time in stopping the abuse. Fray Felipe had been prior of the Dominican convent in Manila once, and provincial of the entire Order in the Philippines twice. Three years into the vacancy of the see of Manila following the death of the Dominican Fray Juan López, the King of Spain named Fray Felipe archbishop. On 4 August 1677, he received the royal decree naming him archbishop of Manila. The cathedral chapter, seeing that the friar was doubtful about his own capacity to discharge the office owing to his advanced age, required that he accept the promotion. This he did on 11 November, after having ascertained that the traditional terna was not proposed—the King nominated only him.
Pope Innocent XI confirmed the appointment of Fray Felipe as archbishop of Manila on 8 January 1680. While the bull of confirmation was still in transit to the Islands, Fray Felipe finally decided to issue the decree banning not only the practice of singing carols during the misa de aguinaldo, but the misa de aguinaldo itself. To prevent any pretence at celebrating the misa de aguinaldo, he forbad not only Sung Masses, but also Low Masses. Carols, even those whose subject is the divine, he prohibited. Below is the text of the decree with our translation.
The prohibition is threefold: music, instrument, and carol. The third is what interests us. We will not discuss here the merit of lumping with the ban even those musical pieces that are about the divine. The original Spanish uses the word chanzoneta, which, according to the DRAE, descended from the French chansonnette, and signifies a “four-line verse or composition in light and festive verse, formerly generally created in order to be sung in Christmastide or in other religious festivities”.
To understand what a chanzoneta is, let us use as our point of reference something which we already know: the villancico. The chanzoneta and the villancico are both refrain songs: that is, they both have a copla, with or without estribillos, and several estrofas. The villancico originated as a popular rhymed song, which soon became part of court music. The chanzoneta, on the other hand, was the holier cousin of the villancico, its subject being usually sacred. However, between the two, the chanzoneta is the merrier, the more cheerful, and, consequently, the less refined in style. Over time, people conflated the villancico and the chanzoneta, that only the villancico remains recognisable nowadays.
Rin, rin is an example of a villancico with cheerful lyrics (click the thumbnail on the left to open the sheet music). In the first estrofa, it talks about a donkey laden with chocolate en route to Bethlehem, chocolate that is eventually eaten by other people; in the second, about gypsies who have come into the manger, gypsies who consequently stole the nappies of the Child Jesus; in the third, about rats infesting the manger, rats that would later gnaw the underpants of Saint Joseph. This villancico is also known under the title Hacia Belén va una burra.
Niño divino is an example of a villancico with solemn lyrics. Usually, only its first estrofa is sung, which describes the Child Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger, crying and shivering, not because He needed warmth against the cold, but because He sensed the rigidity of the faithless man (hombre impío). This version changes hombre impío to hambre impía (merciless hunger). Other versions, this, this, and this, retain hombre impío. The Filipino version (click the thumbnail on the right to open the sheet music) of this villancico uses the estrofa as well and has a different melody.
This historical incident teaches us that we must respect the fact that the misa de aguinaldo is a solemn Mass. And that this solemnity, being expressed exuberantly and expectantly in music, must not wander outside the boundaries of the sacred Liturgy. Yes, Christmas in our hearts as the go-to Communion hymn for the misa de aguinaldo in the usus recentior is a reality we must endure, perhaps to earn heaven, but it is a telltale sign that, like heresies, there are no new liturgical abuses, only new paragons of liturgical abuse. We are called to sing only those that are appropriate for the august Sacrifice of the Mass, and those that are commensurate to the dignity of the consecrated edifice. We must resist the urge to trundle into the realm of unbridled gaiety our ancestors so readily expressed. Gregorian chant, surprisingly, is a potent medicine against the effusive externalisation of interior joy. Moderation, elsewhere we have said, works wonders. Let us do our own work to preserve the dignity of the Liturgy.
Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.