Every year I do a virtual advent calendar of Advent and Christmas music. This year I want to begin with “This Little Babe” from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.

We’re singing this in church choir. I’ve heard this many times and enjoyed it, but have never caught the words. I was surprised by them.

This little babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell he will surprise
With tears he fights and wins the field
His naked breast stands for a shield
His battering shot are babish cries
His arrows looks of weeping eyes
His martial ensigns Cold and Need
And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed
His camp is pitched in a stall
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes
Of shepherds he his muster makes
And thus as sure his foe to wound
The angels’ trumps a larum sound
My soul with Christ
Join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents
That he hath pight
Within his crib
Is surest ward;
This little Babe
Will by thy guard
If thou wilt foil thy
Foes with joy, then
Flit not from this
Heavenly boy!

The words are a poem by 16thcentury English Jesuit priest Robert Southwell. He died a martyr in England and was canonized in 1970.

Some of the words gave us pause. “Pight” is an archaic past tense form of “pitch.”

Do we foil our foes with joy? It’s interesting to think about. But why would we “flit”? That sounds so frivolous. Perhaps it had different connotations in those days. A bulwark is a defensive wall, and a muster is a gathering of troops (or of peacocks, as it happens).

This is an exciting song. It requires a choir. There is a melody line and you could sing it yourself, but you can’t get the whole clash of war sound without a choir.

It’s not very Christmassy, is it? But quite exciting, so it’s a good kickoff. And it helps to make the point that started me off on this tradition more than a decade ago. People complained then, and probably still do, that they get tired of Christmas music. I think this is because they have such a limited idea of what Christmas music is. This is Christmas music.