I know it’s not even close to Christmas yet, but I have to plan way ahead for the Christmas worship season, and once again today I found myself searching out good carols. The 1993 Unitarian Universalist hymnal contains the lovely ProvenÃ§al carol “Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella.” But the hymnal editors included only two verses (verses 1 and 4 below).
Two verses are not enough to tell the whole story of the two milkmaids, Jeanette and Isabella, who go to milk the cows before sunrise one morning. There in the cows’ manger lies the baby Jesus! Jeanette and Isabella run back to the village to awaken the townsfolk with the news that the messiah (the Christ) has been born. The townsfolk all grab torches and head off to the stable to see for themselves. As the word spreads, more and more people come, some bringing cake (more precisely, gÃ¢teaux) so that everyone can celebrate. But Jesus is sleeping, and the latecomers are told to quiet down lest they waken the baby.
A Web search turned up four verses in French, and a decent translation by Edward Cuthbert. With all four verses, the song is a little more raucous and a little less precious. I’m bored with precious Christmas songs, so I like the longer version better. I’ve been thinking about developing children’s story to go with the song, a story that emphasizes the humanness of the baby, as well as the fact that the townsfolk saw great potential in this child — the potential to be the messiah and save the world.
You’ll find all four verses below (with the original French for Canadians, and anyone with Francophones in their congregations). I have tweaked Cuthbert’s translation in a few places for greater accuracy, and in a couple of places so it sounds better to my ears.
Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella
ProvenÃ§al carol attributed to Ã‰mile BlÃ©mont (16th C.)
English words adapted from a translation by Edward Cuthbert Nunn (1868-1914)
1. Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella
Bring a torch, and quickly run.
Come see Jesus, good folk of the village
Christ is born, and Mary’s calling.
Ah! Ah! beautiful is the mother,
Ah! Ah! beautiful is her child.
2. It is wrong when babies are sleeping,
It is wrong to talk so loud.
Stop your talking one and all!
Lest this noise should waken Jesus.
Hush! Hush! quietly now he slumbers,
Hush! Hush! quietly now he sleeps.
3. Who comes there, who’s knocking so loudly?
Who comes there, who knocks on the door?
Open wide! for I bear a basket
Filled high with cakes, which I have brought here.
Knock! Knock! let us inside the stable!
Knock! Knock! so we can celebrate!
4. Softly, come and enter the stable;
Softly, come for just a short while.
Go and see, how charming is Jesus!
Brown is his brow, his cheeks are rosy!
Oh! Oh! see how the child is sleeping,
Oh! Oh! see how he smiles and dreams.
1. Un flambeau, Jeanette Isabelle,
Un Flambeau, courons au berceau.
C’est JÃ©sus, bonnes gens du hameau,
Le Christ est nÃ©, Marie appelle:
Ah! Ah! Ah! Que la mÃ¨re est belle,
Ah! Ah! Ah! Que l’enfant est beau.
2. C’est un tort quand l’Enfant someille
C’est un tort de crier si fort.
Taisez-vous l’un et l’autre d’abord!
Au moindre bruit JÃ©sus s’Ã©ville.
Chut! Chut! Chut! Il dort Ã merveille!
Chut! Chut! Chut! Ivoyez comme il dort.
3. Qui vient lÃ , frappant de la sorte?
Qui vient lÃ , frappant comme Ã§a?
Ouvrez donc! J’ai posÃ© sur un plat
De bons gÃ¢teaux qu’ici j’apporte.
Toc! Toc! Toc! Ouvrez-nous la porte!
Toc! Toc! Toc! Faisons grand gala!
4. Doucement dans l’Ã©table close,
Doucement venez un moment.
Approchez, que JÃ©sus est charmant!
Comme il est blanc, comme il est rose!
Do! Do! Do! que l’Enfant repose!
Do! Do! Do! qu’il rit en dormant!
Final notes: Although it seems to me that “flambeaux” could also be translated as “candlesticks,” that just won’t scan. And it’s still a little ragged — your editing will be appreciated.
I was going to suggest a fifth verse that began:
Sing and dance and wake the horses;
Bounce the baby boy child on your hip.
But then I thought better of it.
Dan — do you remember that Mom used to sing this song? At least the first part of it, and often when she wanted me to come and do something (Jeanette standing in for Jean, i suppose). I can still hear her singing: “Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella/ Bring a torch, and quickly run.” I knew she was in a good mood when she sang this song, so I would always come.
Hey, cool! I never knew the story behind the song — like many, I just knew “Bring a torch, Jeanette Isabella, hum hum hum hum hum hum hum …”
Jean — Nope, I don’t remember mom singing this song — all I know is that the tune is familiar.
Lizard Eater — Yep, and supposedly in Provence they act out the story by actually carrying torches — how cool is that.
Thank you for the story behind this song — I’d never heard it either — and yet it is one of my
very favorite carols because I just love the tune!