The Coventry Carol

by JenL


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

The first time I heard this song, it was not performed in a church candlelit service on Christmas Eve. Luminaria did not line the snowy walks to the castle of a church we attended. The quiet melody was not being thrummed out on a harp or a piano. No red cheeked cherubs dressed in white robes sang forth.

Instead, I heard the song on the slapdash tape deck my brother had installed in the ’78 Chevy Malibu our grandfather had left to us. It was 1989 and the version I heard was performed by Alison Moyet on A Very Special Christmas Album. Madona, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Nicks and Bob Seger all had tracks on this album.

Alison Moyet’s voice is singular; rich and deep and sort of like British synth pop syrup. If there was anything the world needed at Christmas time in 1989, it was a Yaz-like version of a Jesus in a manger song.

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

My sister and I had it looping that Christmas, my first Christmas as a college student. She took the harmony parts while we washed dishes in the kitchen. She sang it in the shower, perfecting her Loos and Lees. I rolled my eyes; let’s just say she got the vocal talent in the family. 

But it was easy. Easy to focus on the harmony and the delicate tune. It was fun to be at home, with my family, while the world swirled by. It was easy to rewind, back and back and back, to the pleasant lilt of the chanting. But oh. That song grabs me. It’s the old bait and switch, because the lullaby sound does not prepare the listener for the kick in the maternal heart that is coming.

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

So, yeah. That whole killing of all the young babies thing comes up in this sweet little lullaby. And that’s not super pleasant. And I don’t want to watch fat cheeked cherubs sing about infanticide. I don’t really want to think about the part of the story where a power hungry king sends his minions to find the Christ child…and all the children. I want to get back to the loo lees and loo lays. I want to get back to the Yaz-stylings. 

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Except it is part of the story. And it’s ugly. Brutal, even. And the song, the tune together with the lyrics, is a lovely balance of the Christian life. The beauty of birth and the violence of murder. The saving grace of sacrifice and the reality of separation. The walk of faith and our constant tripping over real life, real problems, real pain.

The short refrain is like a respite for me. When we circle back around to the chanting lully lullay, I can breathe again. I can swim to the surface of the struggle and I can rest.

For more on the song, and to hear an unYaz version, here ya go. 

6 Responses to “The Coventry Carol”

  1. Gavin November 21, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    Thanks so much for reminiscing on Coventry Carol and specificly this version – The first three Very Special Christmas albums spoke a lot to me and intensified the importance of Advent and the coming of Christ in my life. I appreciate your words.

  2. Leigh Kramer November 21, 2013 at 11:24 am #

    I remember that album but I don’t remember this song. So interesting to see what songs grab us at the perfect time.

  3. Kurt L November 21, 2013 at 2:53 pm #

    It is funny the songs that grab us that mean something. No hymns really hit home with me growing up, but Bing Crosby’s and Frank Sanatra’s Christmas albums are gold and stir up lots of memories.

    I am struck though by your reflection, specifically, on the lyrics of this song. As an adult with your eyes wide open, you obviously find the dichotomy of the two extremes fascinating and deep.

    Did you realize this juxtaposition when you heard the song initially? or was this something you hit upon when you were older now and looking back?

  4. Diana Trautwein November 21, 2013 at 11:46 pm #

    I sang this carol in church and school choirs and do not remember that particular verse at all. I have a hunch my adolescent mind just skipped right over that horror. Life is full of these paradoxes, isn’t it? Thanks for remembering this one so beautifully, Jen. (But please tell this old lady — what the heck are the Yaz references??)

  5. Alyssa Santos November 22, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    This paradox… Only the beginning of the many (Isaiah 53). I read somewhere this life can be called “brutiful”- a fitting term, and one that aptly describes the deeper sight that comes from understanding the scandalous grace and glorious surrender of Christ .

  6. Sprittibee November 24, 2013 at 8:47 pm #

    I love that album. Still play it every year. Thanks for this, because I never really listened that close to the words and was caught up in that Yazziness, too. Great post. May we all tie our hearts to Christ and reclaim the real meaning behind the ‘holidays’. (What a glory that would be.) Amen.

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