What pasta has to do with Christmas carols

"Macaronic" texts have been produced wherever cultures are bilingual or multilingual, and can combine any languages, not just English and Latin.


There’s a Christmas tradition that we don’t often think about – singing macaronic carols. Macaronic sounds like a derisive way to talk about pasta, but it means “characterized by a mixture of two languages,” according to Merriam-Webster. Many Christmas carols contain a mix of languages, usually a vernacular (English in our case) and Latin.  

The most famous macaronic carol is probably “In Dulci Jubilo [In Sweet Rejoicing],” which was voted No. 2 best Christmas carol ever, according to a poll of international choir directors. This medieval carol describes joy at Christ’s birth, and slides effortlessly in and out of Latin, rhyming it with German, originally, and English in later translations: “In dulci jubilo, / Let us our homage show! / Our heart’s joy reclineth / In praesepio [in a manger].” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” an 18th-century French carol, has a short but celebrated Latin refrain, the rollicking “Gloria in excelsis Deo [Glory to God in the highest].” And when George Ratcliffe Woodward wanted a bit of ye olde flavor for his “Ding Dong Merrily on High” in 1924, he used archaic verb forms such as “sungen” and made it macaronic, including the Latin “Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis.”

Macaronic carols got their start when many people in England were functionally bilingual. Latin was known as the prestige language of religion, philosophy, and diplomacy: Educated people needed to be able to read and write it. The less well educated could probably understand the Latin lines of these carols too, however, as the vocabulary is often simple and would have been deeply familiar from church services.

The term macaronic postdates the earliest of these carols. It does indeed derive from macaroni, which at the time appears to have referred not to tubular pasta but to dumplings. These proto-gnocchi were “thick, coarse, and rustic,” according to Teofilo Folengo, the 16th-century poet who may have coined the term, and texts given the label were likewise supposed to be full of “coarseness.” This reflects an elite prejudice against less-than-pure Latin; in medieval drama, self-aggrandizing characters – Pontius Pilate, for example – are given macaronic lines to mock their pretensions.  

Macaronic texts have been produced wherever cultures are bilingual or multilingual, and can combine any languages, not just English and Latin. Today, bilingual singers like Enrique Iglesias and Blackpink mix English and Spanish and English and Korean as easily as carol writers switched between English and Latin. The subject matter of their songs may be different, but the delight they produce with surprising juxtapositions and cross-language rhymes remains.  

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